On the margins of society

THE RABBLE. Created, directed and performed by Iman Isaacs and Richard September. BORN AROUND HERE. Directed by Gao Lemmenyane and Phala Phala With Teto Mokaila, Kgomotso Ratsie, Kabelo Mojuta, Naledi Thabakgolo and Itseng Modukanele. At Artscape Arena Theatre until September 23. TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews

WHEN your home is demolished in front of your eyes, you are discarded like human garbage, derided and abused and then faced with the ultimate humiliation, simply being ignored, what language do you use to express your pain? Words seem inadequate to convey this trauma and Isaacs and September have gone beyond the confines of language to portray the anguish and despair.

Richard September and Iman Isaacs. Picture: LENA LI

Bedecked in large masks which completely transform them Isaacs and September are a couple who live in the wasteland of what was District 6.

Here they navigate a life on the margins of society, eking out an existence from discarded refuse and drowning their sorrows with cheap alcohol.

The piece is particularly visceral and the mediation of facial expression through the masks creates an uncanny heightened reality.

The soundscape created by John Withers is haunting. From the bleak sound of the South Easter to the wrenching cries of seagulls he has painted both the exterior landscape and the interior desolation of the couple.

When they discover an abandoned baby his sound literally does become another member of the cast.

The ingenious use of a small portable radio is one more element of this piece that makes this such a powerful piece of performance. There are many aspects of the set design which add significantly to the narrative, the seven steps leading to the small house that the women yearns for, the shadows cast by the looming skyscrapers which are harsh and cold, always there and yet completely inaccessible in their steely aloofness.

Francois Knoetzee has excelled in creating a set that is both realistic and metaphorical, utilising the very medium from which the couple survive. What gives this production such emotional resonance though is the calibre of the performances.

The masks give a disembodied sense of the despair and while there is humour the laughs that are elicited are stifled with a sob.

The fourth wall is broken several times. A reminder that the audience are not innocent bystanders but part and parcel of this story.

Not a day goes by in Cape Town where one does not encounter someone who is homeless and destitute.

For Isaacs creating the work is a response to the critical issues of the day, “Generations of South Africans are weighted with the remnants of pain, anger and sadness from an era of discrimination, abandonment and displacement.

The play is a response to the current struggle for land reclamation and affordable housing particularly around developed urban centres where resources are accessible only to those who can afford it.

As a result, there is a prominent tension that exists between land inheritance and restitution.”

Born Around Here is the story of other homes destroyed by the South African government but while the demolition of District Six is often referenced in our shameful history, deadly excursions across the border in to our neighbouring countries during Apartheid are less well documented. Greeting you as you enter the theatre is a women lamenting the loss of life.

As with The Rabble, she invites you to be an active witness rather than a passive bystander.

Hanging in the centre of the stage is a jarring reminder of the country that was left behind, a large South African apartheid era flag. We are introduced to an elderly man (Teto Mokaila) lamenting the loss of his daughter.

He shakes with emotion and the vagaries of age as he describes his sorrow. Slowly stories of the lives that were touched and irrevocably changed and those that were lost are revealed.

The story of exiles who fled South Africa to seek refuge in Botswana and their execution by South African death squads is seldom explored on stage and this vital piece of our shared history deserves to be recognized.

It is particularly touching that this is presented by a theatre company based in Botswana.

The performances are heart wrenching and the use of props: empty pieces of clothing, the slow pouring of sand as if on to a grave is a sadly symbolic and moving acknowledgement of those who were never afforded the opportunity of burying their loved ones.

I first watched this production as a work in progress last year and it has grown in leaps and bounds. The additional incorporation of choreographed sequences and the haunting hymns are both aspects which create a coherence linking the various stories.

Both of the productions are part of the Heritage Festival programme at Artscape and once again Mandla Mbothwe has excelled in presenting work that examines the many facets of South African heritage.

The importance of creating this work for the festival is something that Isaacs feels keenly, “creating stories that confront our community with the harsh realities we choose to be blinded to and to give a voice to those who have been marked as unworthy is important.

The Heritage Festival has given us an opportunity to share a story that is important, relevant and one that we are passionate about.”

Far from stoking a fire and whipping out the braai tongs the festival exposes us to the real meaning of what it means to be a citizen of this country and continent.

Don’t miss this opportunity to excavate, restore and celebrate.

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