”Theatre makes people question their reality.” On his soapbox is director James Ncgobo, but for a theatre convert, he’s soft on the ear. And those who are not, he’s determined to win them over.
Theatre, he emphasises, takes life out of the pedestrian and puts it into the magical realm.
His latest offering, now in rehearsal – with The Suitcase opening The Soweto Theatre at the weekend also directed by this theatre dynamo – is Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena at Daphne Kuhn’s Sandton Theatre on the Square.
If you need reasons for his choice, it hasn’t been done professionally for many years, the playwright turns 80 this year and was honoured in New York at the recent Tony Awards, and four of his plays are being staged this year.
On board the local production are the usual suspects such as designer Nadya Cohen, who is the one who finds the aesthetics of this particular Fugard world. Counting how many plays they have done together, Nadya is quick to retort, “too many… and not enough”.
The two young actors cast in the title roles are from the Cape, Quanita Adams and Elton Landrew. Both will be remembered for their many film and television roles. Unforgiven featured both. Elton, who started out in Kat and The Kings, was also directed by James in Amen Corner while Quanita would have caught many an eye in the illuminating At her Feet performed at The Market a few years back.
They are thrilled for different reasons to be part of the project. Quanita admits that she sees the play as Lena and the Two Dudes or Lena and Her Shadows and she’s not really joking. “The words were written for my mouth,” she emotes.
And even though she has respect for those who played Lena before her, she wants to invite them to come to the theatre, take a seat and listen to her inhabit this woman. Again she’s only half-chuckling.
“I want to take back my narrative,” she says, underlining her determination.
She’s on a roll: “It’s a seminal role, like Juliet, Lady Macbeth… and as a woman of colour, this part was on my career bucket list. It’s a before-I-die kind of role,” she says, just in case you miss the significance. But you get her intent when she concludes this particular thought by confirming that this is her “opportunity to reclaim the narrative”.
Elton, also hugely excited when approached to play Boesman, has different feelings. For him it doesn’t start with the role. It happens with the process and the performances for this actor.
“I know the conversations I have, the process I go through and the play itself will change me as an actor and a person,” he says. Growing up in Namakwaland, he understands that life of displacement. “It’s an authentic experience,” he says.
What they agree about is that they know Boesman and Lena’s world. “It’s a love story,” says Quanita.
Anyone who knows the play will agree. You cannot watch or listen to the words and not be reminded of every and any relationship.
About his choice of casting, for James it is about the individual actors, their enthusiasm and joy.
“You can’t direct those.”
He knew little about the coloured experience and felt that Adams and Landrew would guide and teach him. “It’s a coming together,” he says. And you know things are cooking when the three main participants discuss a specific gesture with designer Nadya and how this should happen, and she admits it kept her awake that night because she suddenly had an idea, and off they all go in their heads and into the play.
Boesman and Lena, they all agree, is about two people with their own hopes and dreams who were dealt an impossibly tough hand. And even though James knows he might be criticised for playing younger actors than is usually the case, he believes it’s not about the age, it’s about the heaviness with which they play their characters. “Bergie years are like dog years,” says Quanita. “There’s no way you can compare their years with ours.”
Like many of his plays, this Fugard piece is about the people we see every day and choose to ignore. This is what James loves about this classic work. It has as much resonance for today’s SA as it did back then.
With that in mind, the third character, a Xhosa man called Outa in the original, has morphed into a French-speaking Congolese played by Congolese actor Charly Azade.
“We don’t hear these foreign narratives,” says James. “It adds to the texture and the nature of the play,” he says.
He believes very strongly that plays should be played with. But with respect. You have to remember why you loved a play in the first place and not move away from that. It’s unpacking the play in a space and place that’s now. While there are references to our dark times, that’s not what the play is about.
“It’s about people looking for dignity,” they agree.
These roads are crooked enough without you also being in a dwaal or Boesman’s back, that’s the scenery of my life – these are not words or thoughts anyone would want to tamper with.
Finally, as we watch one of the scenes from the play, James concludes with a thought about doing this Fugard work: “It’s important because he touches on the landscape of who we are as a people.”