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The State Theatre opens its drama programme with the anticipated new play, Rhetorical, written by Paul Grootboom and Aubrey Sekabi and directed by Grootboom.
The play opened with only a week’s run at the Market Theatre in December and proved to be something of a struggle piece for today’s times as well as a poignantly crafted satire.
It hits many chords with its somewhat rhetorical analysis of former president Thabo Mbeki’s legacy through some key events during his presidency and some of his most famous speeches, thereby depicting the fall of the president and his detached way of relating to the citizens of the new SA.
The production was commissioned by German Institution and Siemens Stiftung for the Belgian Spoken Word Festival, themed Speeches of the World and after its Market Theatre debut last year, it toured Germany. It returns with a few changes which include Atandwa Kani taking on the role of Mbeki, previously played by Fezile Mpela.
One of its highlights is Tsotsi star, Presley Chweneyagae, playing with distinctive passion the fictional character Dada Mokone, based on the ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, among others.
The premise of the story lies with Dada as he colourfully gives a narrative presentation of Mbeki’s days in office.
Chweneyagae is modest about his talent. “A lot of research went into playing these characters. Some of them are based on everyday life, so you take from that. And the discussion on the project went beyond the actual times of the story. You have to enjoy what you do and I enjoy playing Dada, but you have to find a balance and be responsible with the character. You have to bring yourself to the character to make it full while working with its dynamics,” he says.
Way before he shot to fame with the Oscar-winning film Tsotsi, Chweneyagae was doing theatre, including Shakespeare, and working closely with Grootboom.
They wrote Relativity together and seem to bring out the best in each other. But it’s been interesting to see the artistic decisions Chweneyagae has made, which include starring in Khalo Matabane’s film, State of Violence, and his last play was Aubrey Sekhabi and Mandla Dube’s Kalushi in 2010.
It’s the script and availability that are the determining factors, but he believes he has to keep working to improve. And he doesn’t channel himself into one thing, he’s always open to new challenges.
“I’ve learnt how to dance and bring movement to further the narrative in Rhetorical. It’s challenging and I’m learning. But the play has given me an opportunity to exercise my acting muscle,” he says.
What resonates with him in the play is the issue of the youth not getting quality jobs and he is working on forming a foundation with the NGO, SA Youth Movement, that will create a platform for up- and-coming actors in Pretoria.
When it was announced that Kani would be taking over the role of Mbeki, one question popped into a lot of heads: “What about his dreadlocks?”
Well, they are no more and without them a slight resemblance to Mbeki is visible.
“Cutting my dreads was always coming. It took playing Mbeki to do it. I took best friend and fellow actor, Nat Ramabulana along with me to cut them, because I knew he’d laugh the most. It was a painful experience,” says the vivacious young man who feels no pressure about being the son of Dr John Kani.
“I have met John Kani twice in my life: when he directed me in Othello and when we acted in The Tempest, and he’s an amazing person to be around. Otherwise I just know my dad,” he says.
He is carving his own way in the performing arts with TV work including the local drama, 93 Plein Street, the UK series, Wild at Heart and the American, Life is Wild. When it comes to theatre, he reveals he loves musical theatre, though he hasn’t done any.
But this 2008 Wits graduate, together with Ramabulana, represent new voices that will go a long way in shaping the future of SA theatre, with plays such as Hayani and ID Pending, dealing with identity and the youth of post 1994 finding their place in the new SA. And Rhetorical deals with some post-1994 issues which resonate with Kani.
“Post-94 resonates with us, the youth of today. It’s hard-hitting and it’s our history. So you have the obligation to be responsible. And it becomes about what your contribution is, moving forward.
“We have a romanticised version of a rainbow nation, there’s still unemployment, poverty, discrimination and HIV. What better way to make that awareness than through art. And art can spark debate.”
He was thrilled when he got the call from the State Theatre offering him the part of Mbeki. He takes it as a compliment that Sekhabi and Grootboom thought of him.
But he admits Mpela’s are big shoes to fill and it’s an even bigger challenge to play Mbeki.
“We have different methods as actors. You have to find out what makes your character tick. I try to get to the man – where he was born, his interest in politics and why he wanted to carry on. I had to go to the core of him and what makes him detach. The difficulty in the play is that what we know of him is what’s been shown publicly – and that’s what we’re showing. It’s torturous to have to keep things about a character that you can’t let out,” Kani says.
But it’s these human narratives he’s attracted to.
• Rhetorical opens at the State Theatre on Thursday at 8pm. R67 to R110 at Computicket.