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DIRECTOR: James Ngcobo
PLAYWRIGHT: Athol Fugard
CAST: Desmond Dube, Hamilton Dlamini, Tony Kgoroge, Masasa Mbangeni, Fana Mokoena
VENUE: The Market’s Laager Theatre
UNTIL: November 3
This one packs punch. From start to end, you’re completely engaged with a director and cast that clearly want Fugard to sing. And he does.
This is one of his earliest plays, set in the Fifties when people living in the townships were trying to find a way to make a life. This is about Queenie (Mbangeni) and her men.
She made money for her shebeen and her man/pimp, the smooth-talking Sam (Mokoena), gave shelter to the physically challenged Blackie (Dube) when she saw people laughing at his disabilities. The shebeen also serves as a refuge for the hard-drinking, broken-spirited Patrick (Dlamini). Until Johnny (Kgoroge) walks through the door and threatens their well-being.
James Ngcobo was determined to play the romance because it is what drives the heart of the story as a woman responds to the way a man treats her – gently and with attention. She’s willing to give up her money-making and start living.
This is what she has been waiting and searching for and something none of the other men in her life understand. But Johnny does.
He has walked a similar life as his shebeen queen when, as a youngster, he had to live in a mine hostel.
Fugard is brilliant in capturing the heartache and hardship of life without freedom while telling a story of ordinary people trying to breathe – not much more. Some make it, while others are treading water and some can hardly keep their heads above it.
It needs the subtlety and sparks that a cast of this magnitude provide. It’s a gamble to put such firepower on a single stage, but this cast is hungry to serve the play and they do it with enthusiasm.
Providing the soft centre, Mbangeni (baby of the group) gives a strong and wilful yet vulnerable performance as the woman who has skivvied all her life, at a devastating cost, and nurtures a deep longing for someone of her own.
Mokoena is perfect as the apparently happy-go-lucky yet street-wise Sam who will do anything, even at a cost of his big love, to keep the status quo. He plays with big heart as he wields the power of a man used to getting his way. Dube has a tough ask as the debilitated Blackie and grabs the character by the scruff of his neck and goes full on, and pulls it off.
Not many would, but infusing a physical performance with under-standing of who the man is, works magnificently. The same can be said of Dlamini whose alcoholic with a hollow heart has you screaming in pain.
Into this brittle mix steps Kgoroge’s sweet-talking Johnny who loses his heart to a woman he believes might anchor his life.
“I like my woman clean,” he says and we know he’s in trouble. It’s a leap from the charmer to drunk, which he pulls off some, but not all of the time.
But Ngcobo has asked his actors to go big: the bigger the laugh, the bigger the pain. And it’s a rigorous and intoxicating story which from the beginning takes you down a slippery slope.
It’s classic but early Fugard, and the director has decided to play with it rather than stick to a formula.
From Nadya Cohen’s brilliant conceptual set to the quirky music which doesn’t quite work yet adds to the fun and realism of the approach with food cooking in the corner filling the auditorium with aromas.
It’s a work that still has to settle and grow and yet, it has you hooked. The approach is playful to unsettle the underlying anger, the actors almost have to work against their public personas and grab hands which they do and the director has opted to fiddle around with all kinds of machinations to ask questions and nudge the audience.
It’s a masterpiece in the making.