Into the second month of 2019 and things are pumping at Joburg’s Market Theatre where artistic director James Ngcobo has staged Nina Simone Four Women to celebrate Black History Month with this South African premiere. He speaks to DIANE DE BEER about his future plans in this, his second term, at this iconic theatre:
For James Ngcobo, Nina Simone Four Women written by Christina Ham, one of a quartet of hot female playwrights in the US currently, means many different things. Presented in conjunction with the US Mission in SA, he believes strongly in staging this kind of work which forms part of the Market’s 6th annual commemoration of Black History Month.
It’s all about the message, telling the story and the four actresses on stage who will be portraying different aspects of Nina Simone, as the title indicates. “The play is based on four characters Simone created in a song,” explains Ngcobo who sees this as an exploration of the landscape of women.
It was Nina Simone who said: “Music can’t just be about the art, but it has to be an expression of the good, bad and ugly in life.” A staunch activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, she wrote songs that told stories of people she observed in everyday life. It is because of that truth that her music still resonates so strongly today, argues Ngcobo.
On September 16, 1963, the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone’s career shifted from artist to artist/activist because she believed as an artist it was her responsibility to reflect the times. And in this sacred place, four little girls lost their lives.
Nina Simone Four Women is set in the sadness of the church and also uses the framework of one of Simone’s most blistering songs Four Women to portray a quartet of women who suffered from self-hatred due to the different shades of their skin. As if being black in those times in that place wasn’t damning enough, they further judged themselves on the light- or darkness of their skin.
It’s also about the conversations between the four women. It’s about who they are, how they fight the battle, how they escape for solace – and in the background lingers the death of four little girls. For Ngcobo, this story from the past reverberates with the racism of our time.
“Nina made a choice when she started speaking out. She knew that talking about some of the things she did was to the detriment of her career, but that’s what she had to do,” he notes. And like her songs, this play is also all about storytelling. “That’s why her music still has impact today,” he says.
His cast includes Busi Lurayi as Nina (who brought a flippancy to her audition that caught the director’s eye), Lerato Mvelase (who starred in Colour Purple and King Kong, as Auntie Sarah who is only interested in her livelihood, daily washing and ironing), Mona Monyane Skenjana (who was part of his Coloured Museum cast and he’s been wanting to work with again) and Noxolo Dlamini (representing youth and thus hope) as the four women in the title. There’s also a young piano player representing Simone’s brother who tinkles away in the background – as well as two extra singers.
Nina Simone Four Women is staged in the main, John Kani Theatre until February 24, while storytelling of another kind is playing in the Mannie Manim Theatre.
Van Wyk the Storyteller of Riverlea was created and is performed by well-known South African actor Zane Meas and directed by Christo Davids. These two have a previous links with Van Wyk as they both played in Janice Honeyman’s 2008 adaptation of Shirley, Goodness and Mercy which performed to full houses at the Market Theatre. This is the 5th time that they will be working together on stage in a partnership that spans over 12 years.
Anyone who has read Van Wyk’s books will know that he was foremost a storyteller. This particular piece explores his influences as a poet, as political activist and writer, his family life and his tragic battle with cancer. It is an homage to his humour, political values and storytelling abilities, all of which add texture to the piece and insight into the writer’s life. (see review).
In the Barney Simon Theatre Nailed will premiere from February 8 to March 3. The production is sponsored by the Department of Arts and Culture’s Incubation Fund, aimed at assisting emerging practitioners to hone their skills from amateur to professional status.
If you want to tell the naked truth about post-apartheid South Africa, better do it through fiction believes The Market’s artistic director. Author Niq Mhlongo has long been a Ngcobo favourite and he believes he masters his art brilliantly.
His latest work, Soweto Under the Apricot Tree is a collection of short stories about contemporary Soweto, Johannesburg and South Africa and the one that caught Ngcobo’s attention. The stories are an account of township life with commentary on post-apartheid South Africa still grappling with many of the issues emanating from our past. “Every township house always had an apricot tree,” reminisces Ngcobo.
It is a story about abuse of political power, infidelity and violence. It deals with corrupt, greedy and selfish politicians who are in the business not for the people but for self aggrandisement and personal gain.
This country knows better than many how behavior impacts on the lives of ordinary people and how it affects the morale of a country. That’s why this one will be fun to watch with an engaged audience as well as writing that comes alive on stage.
Nailed is directed by Luthando Mngomezulu, who was responsible for Isithunzi, the 2017 Zwakala Festival winner, and the cast includes Aya Mpama, Khulu Skenjana, Katlego Letsholonyane, Lunga Khuhlane, Nyaniso Dzedze and Zesuliwe Hadebe.
Other exciting plays to watch out for is a reworking of Tsafendasby by playwright Anton Krueger starring Renos Nicos Spanoudes and directed by the exciting Jade Bowers, who will add fresh and young perspective; in Exit/Exist, dancer/choreographer Gregory Maqoma takes inspiration from his ancestral past as he blends storytelling with his powerful dance vocabulary and dynamic live music in this moving solo performance with live musicians. It’s an examination of race, political power, and the melding of past and present. (Also watch out for a return of the haunting Cion – inspired by the Zakes Mda book -which will be staged in September to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary.
There’s also a lot of buzz around the new John Kani play which deals with the relationship between a dying white actor (Anthony Sher) and his black nurse (John Kani) directed by Kani stalwart Janice Honeyman which will be staged in the latter half of the year. The Baxter’s production of Strindberg’s The Goat starring the powerful combination of Jennifer Steyn and Andrew Buckland directed by Mdu Kweyana will also be staged.
Times may be tough, but theatre is as always inspired.