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Future classic, but script needs work

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TO john Kani, Susan Danford, Buhle Ngaba in Missing ... pic by Oscar O'Ryan...

MISSING

DIRECTOR: Janice Honeyman

PLAYWRIGHT: John Kani

CAST: John Kani, Susan Danford, Buhle Ngaba, Apollo Ntshoko

VENUE: Market Theatre

UNTIL: July 13

RATING: ***

There’s so much crammed into this theatrical offering that it feels a bit like wishing for something, then complaining because your desires have been completely satisfied.

John Kani is a theatre giant and more recently, he has also emerged as a huge writing talent especially with stories that deal with this country right now. And finally, he’s leading the charge in having that conversation so necessary about post-apartheid South Africa 20 years on.

Missing couldn’t have been better timed and that’s what makes it so thrilling to watch. That and the Market audience. There’s no way it doesn’t become a factor with this play because it adds to the dimensions of what is happening on stage.

Typically, South African audiences – yes we know, some more than others – participate with the conversation on stage and in this instance, when you’re sitting in an audience that almost represents this country’s demographic, it adds to the fun and edginess as gasps can sometimes be heard or the odd tsk tsk or loud agreement with something one of the characters says.

Because we’re talking current, it’s about a land and its people who fought a brutal struggle to claim freedom, and when they win the battle and the spoils, seem to be squandering the lives of the bulk of their people. Shocking stuff, but then we live in a country where the controversy of corruption seems a daily occurrence with not much happening to many of the perpetrators.

Enough, says Kani the playwright, and his character Robert Khalipa agrees. He left his country and worked tirelessly in exile with the dream of being invited back to serve in the first post-apartheid government. When that doesn’t happen, he almost halts his life and goes into a silent mourning.

In the meantime, his wealthy, Swedish, white, super-boss wife, and their daughter who is on the verge of getting married aren’t completely aware of his inner struggle. Only the longing – but are they? His assistant in the meantime, Peter Tshabalala (Ntshoko), returned home and was welcomed into government. The plot thickens and the issues keep tripping, one over the other.

One knows all the players and the issues, so it is intriguing to have them as part of a story playing out in family and country. But these are huge issues which have to be moulded and mangled before you can get to any outcome and here, they seem to magically reach a conclusion, too quickly and easily. Would a man feeling so bereft of everything his homeland has to offer change his mind so snappily? Would a mother and a daughter (in her twenties) discuss the parents’ first meeting so late in their relationship?

This is such an important conversation, and Kani wrote Missing because it is the right conversation to begin right now. Sometimes it is a struggle to always find the right way to express what’s in your heart and mind and here, the playwright is still at times finding his way, sometimes preaching where a quieter conversation could resonate more.

This is a text that should be stretched this way and that, before it is packed away. There are too many conversations that turn into lectures and propaganda-type talk, which can easily be turned into a cosy chat rather than someone almost wagging a finger to make a point.

The performances are great with Kani delivering moments of sheer wonder – in the writing too. He finds ways of capturing moments in a psyche that explains the pain to someone who hasn’t experienced it personally. “I’m a 40-year-old man who doesn’t know how to vote.” Enough said.

He also has a Kani rhythm when he performs, that’s so captivating to experience and with the strong presence of Danford (who has been missed on the Gauteng stage) to counterpunch. There’s an engaging gender argument that weaves itself in-between the politics that might seem the more pressing. Ngaba worms her way into your heart, but Ntshoko doesn’t quite pull off the kind of smarmy character he’s supposed to play. He is the kind of man who should go on with a strong swagger.

With all this said, it’s a play that engages from the word “go” because it is what people are talking and thinking about from the boardrooms to the backstreets. That has always been the South African way, to talk our way through problems.


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