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He caught many unawares with his first production, Itsoseng, a story from the heart about the place he knew best – where he grew up and where he escaped from.
But as a youngster still, someone who shouldn’t yet show such wisdom, playwright-director-actor Omphile Molusi returns time and again to give back. It is in exploring his own history on a wider or personal level that he has discovered his voice.
“It was difficult in the beginning,” he says. “I want to deal with where we are as a people and a country, but I didn’t want to dabble in political rhetoric.”
With Itsoseng and the response he got nationally and internationally, he knew it was the personal story that carried weight.
It was once he returned to the township he had escaped that he realised people were still without electricity and running water. He started writing about it. He wasn’t planning a play, it’s something he’s done from a young age – writing about his feelings. When he couldn’t express or communicate verbally, he needed to write it down.
Winner of a Scotsman Fringe First Award (2008) at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for Itsoseng, Omphile was the first recipient of the Royal Shakespeare Company/ Baxter Theatre’s Brett Golden Bursary Award (2007), which earned the young playwright a life-changing scholarship to study with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. That’s where it all began for him.
It is all about his country and its people. “I want us to take care of what we fought for,” says someone who learnt more about our past rather than experienced it.
There are always the effects, but they came closer to home when he started looking around at his immediate elders.
“I have always been taught to respect my elders,” he says.
He still finds it difficult to contradict or argue with someone who is older. But he was puzzled by his uncles, his mother’s brothers, who always put out a hand for money when he returned home, giving little in return. They seemed to sit around, smoke and drink and chat – not much more.
“When you come home from Joburg, everyone thinks you have money,” he notes.
He needed to know more and started conversations with his closest elders. It was a personal journey and a need to get to know those he loved.
“I didn’t know the impact Itsoseng would have on people’s lives,” he says about his first effort. “This is why I’m doing Cadre.”
He wants to understand people. He takes them seriously and wants to make a difference. And that’s how Cadre (opening at The Market’s Laager Theatre on Thursday until April 14 with Molusi, Sello Motloung and Lillian Tshabalala) started.
“I wanted to see my uncles as people,” he explains. “I wanted to understand their lives.”
Once he got into their stories, his views changed.
“If you don’t know who people are, you don’t care about them,” he explains. “But when you do, the stories have to be told. It’s the human stories that grab hearts.”
His plays are not an attempt to attack the government, but to engage. He believes power is a monster that has to be battled. When you listen to this serious young man, you realise it’s about improving lives, feeding their dreams and giving back.
“We have to be careful how we protect our freedom,” he says. “We live in a wonderful country, but we have to beware of arrogance. We must not forget – ever – where we come from. We haven’t yet defined our freedom.”
It was tough to find the right tone for Cadre. He was inspired by his uncles’ lives but he struggled with what he was trying to say. He had been writing for a few years, but when he was invited with his actors to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre to work on and stage the play, with the directive also to play and direct, he was overwhelmed.
It was about costs, but he demanded that someone come in during the process to help and guide, which is what happened.
From that first foray into the wide world with the Brett Golden bursary, Omphile has been embraced by international caretakers who spotted his potential. In turn, he has grabbed the opportunities and learnt from those with more experience.
Locally, theatres are fearful of what might be perceived as Struggle theatre. “It’s not that,” says the playwright, who was young when the country became a democracy.
But he feels the need to make a difference. He believes in people and their dreams and he knows that once we understand, it is easier to reach out a hand.
“What happens to people who have fought so hard for something they love, only to lose it in the end?” he questions. “Only with open hearts can we really engage.”
Wise words from someone who is determined to put everything he believes into practice. He has already established a children’s theatre organisation called Mowa Art Field (Spirit of the Arts) in the village (Bodibe) he was born in on the edge of Itsoseng.
“It’s about teaching people that they have choices,” he says, under- standing the notion of matric graduates who can’t find work. “Not everyone has a platform,” he says.
That’s why he takes his work seriously. Hopefully, he can encourage others to dream.