ACTORS AND DIRECTOR COME OUT TO PLAY AT THE ANNUAL BLACK HISTORY PRODUCTION AT MARKET

PICTURES: Lungelo Mbulwana

Pass Over starring Hungani Ndlovu

DIANE DE BEER

Life is slowly and almost silently returning to the Market Theatre – just in time to benefit from President Ramaphosa’s latest concessions doubling on the 50 seats already conceded.

Artistic director James Ngcobo kicks off tonight (running until March 28 starting at 6pm but check opening times on specific days) with his annual Black History Month production also celebrating the 45th anniversary year of The Market. Showcasing an African American playwright and in the past – as now, giving him the opportunity to spotlight some of the hottest young playwrights from the US.

The title of this year’s production, Pass Over, is suggestive of many things depending where you come from and whether you are religious, but it is also a play that has been inspired (as many before) by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It features two young black men, Moses and Kitch, who are forever stuck in a cyclical existential conundrum: how do we get off this street corner and into paradise?

Kathu Ramabulana (right)and Hungani Ndlovu (centre) as Moses and Kitsch and Charlie Bouguenon as Mister

But they keep busy by swapping visions of the promised land, imagining all the delights that await them there. Into this conversation steps a white man, Mister (a name that already suggests many different avenues in this context), and he startles the two young men with his preppy demeanour. He has lost his way while heading to his mother’s house to bring a basket of food. With this seemingly bottomless basket packed with delicious treats Mister is blissfully free and bursting with potential tralala…

He leaves shortly after the entrance of Ossifer (a jumble of letters which could also make up officer), a white policeman … and naturally the scene is set for many contemporary struggles while referencing both Beckett and Exodus with obvious intent.

Pass Over creative team Kabomo Vilakazi, Sibusisiwe Manqele and James Ngcobo

Written by Antoinette Nwandu, a New York playwright, it premiered a few years back at Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre as well as travelling to London. She has been honoured with amongst others The Whiting Award, The Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, The Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, The Negro Ensemble Company’s Douglas Turner Ward Prize, and a Literary Fellowship at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College with a bachelor’s degree in English and holds a Master’s of Science degree in Cultural Politics from the University of Edinburgh, and an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

What appealed to Ngcobo is that it is a play that speaks to the now and with so much happening in the US (and around the world on a race and oppression level if you look at the Time Next 100 list) with especially Black Lives Matter, all of that seems especially (and rightfully) heightened. “It just makes for interesting conversation,” he says. And even more than that. It seems finally, race has become the issue with Covid-19 bringing it into even sharper relief – and about time.

The cast of Pass Over

And the writing itself, notes Ngcobo. In a note from the playwright she explains that “the language is intentionally heightened, calculatedly rhythmic and playfully human. There is a kind of poetry and energy that is written into the words that Moses and Kitch use, which invites the audience to fully understand these characters and the world they inhabit.”

Ngcobo says because of the way it’s written that while dealing with tragic topics, it’s also very funny. “In rehearsal we are looking especially at the environment that gave birth to the text.”  And he is especially excited about his casting of Kathu Ramabulana and Hungani Ndlovu as Moses and Kitsch and Charlie Bouguenon as Mister and the rest.

Pass Over is staged in commemoration of Black History Month and while mainly celebrated in America, Ngcobo believes that the play will inspire South Africans to have the tough conversations around issues  of common interest including police brutality and white supremacy still flourishing long after apartheid.

Khathu Ramabulana and Hungani Ndlovu

It explores the unquestionable human spirit and the resilience of young black men who keep hoping for miracles. Moses and Kitch are struggling to survive on the tough streets of America. It’s a rare piece of politically charged theatre from a bold new American voice, just the kind of fighting spirit we need on stage in these crazy times to get audiences going.

Another project in the  making is a return of Zakes Mda’s brilliant Mother of all Eating directed by Dom Gumede with Vusi Kunene back on stage joined by Thulani Nyembe. It’s a fantastic play for these times and should be a grand face-off between these two acclaimed actors and a welcome return to live theatre.

Corruption heads the issues in this tale set in Lesotho in 1992 which shows just what happens when power is allowed to go unchecked. It plays from March 12 to April 11.

Three online productions start at the same time with Avalon written and performed by Lunga Radebe and directed by Vice Motshabi Monageng (from March 12 to 21) revolving around Sabantu, a young nouveau riche who, desperate to save his mother’s life, takes advice from a traditional prophet to search for his grandmother’s grave in one of South Africa’s largest cemeteries. He is instructed to perform a ritual on the grave, which is meant to remove the black cloud hanging over his family. What seems like quite a straightforward task turns into something much more daunting.

The next one has the provocative title of A Vegan Killed my Marriage written and directed by Craig Freimond who hasn’t worked at The Market for quite some time and stars Aron McElroy. Streaming from March 26 to April 4, it tells the story of James, a meat eating man. He is however plugged into all the scares about meat and the climate catastrophe about to happen. It’s something he tries to ignore but a work trip shakes him out of his comfort zone. He turns vegetarian which turns into vegan which becomes a kind of crusade as this king of the braai, bans all meat from his home and declares it a meat-free zone.

Di a Paro Tsa Mama (My Mother’s Clothes) is written and directed by Rorisang Motuba with performance dates from May 21 to 31.

In line with Ngcobo’spassion for indigenous language plays, this one is set on the eve of their mother’s funeral, with two sisters, aged 23 and 29, sorting through her clothes in search of the perfect outfit to bury her in. Their sensitive nostalgia morphs into harrowing discoveries about death, grief and survival in what promises to be a sensitive piece.

Depending on what happens later in the year, these three might also make their way onto stage.

Another live performance is Rose (previously played by Annabel Linder at Theatre on the Square) starring the sublime Camilla Waldman in a surprise return to the Market stage. It has been quite some time and is also a return to his old stomping ground for previous artistic director Malcolm Purkey, taking the directing reins for this one.

Camilla Waldman

Rose is a survivor. Her remarkable life began in 1920 in a tiny Russian village, took her to Warsaw’s ghettoes and a ship called The Exodus, and finally to the boardwalks of Atlantic City, the Arizona canyons and salsa-flavoured nights in Miami Beach.

It’s described as a sharply drawn portrait of a feisty Jewish woman and a moving reminder of some of the events that shaped the 20th century.

It plays in the John Kani Theatre from April 23 to June 6.

As inspired, later in the year, is a return of Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot directed by Ngcobo with two of the best, Mnedici Shabangu and Elton Landrew. And for the moment, that’s enough to keep theatre enthusiasts smiling.