When Limpopo’s Phillip Dikotla first read about the horrific shootings at Skierlik, it wasn’t the deaths that rumbled in his head, it was the small settlement of Skierlik.
It’s a story that crept into his consciousness from the beginning, but what really rattled his reality was the community and their absence of dreams.
Dikotla had started out as a stand-up comedian in his community, but as time went on and he was introduced to the Market’s Lab, he knew he wanted to tell stories.
“I’m still funny every once in a while,” he says almost wistfully, because it is the more serious issues that drive him now.
“Comedy will also heal people, but the contents will get lost in translation,” he says. And he’s determined that he gets to say what he wants to say out there. His first play, Skierlik, opening at the Soweto Theatre on Friday – and which was nominated for Best New South African Script and won him Best Solo Performance at this year’s Fleur du Cap Awards – took a few years to shape and develop as this young Lab student was guided by mentors like Dan Roberts (“Uncle Dan”). Once he had graduated, Dikotla, still young and driven by his cool factor, was reluctant to take too much advice.
“I thought they were keeping me from doing it my way,” he said. At the time he was also angry at institutions because he felt they were grooming him in a certain way.
There was so much at stake in this young life.
“I had to tell my stories,” he says.
He spent a few years working on the play, often rehearsing on his own with no one to reflect with, but eventually it paid off.
As Skierlik was performed more widely, he started listening to what was being said and knew that the important thing was to get the story out there and heard in the right way.
What was in his head didn’t always translate on stage. What resonates for him is the people from this forgotten place that suddenly grabbed the spotlight.
He struggled with the commercialism that seemed to push him in a certain way but also discovered that work could be shaped in a way to serve the art. The artistic expression had to connect with the audience so they could hear what he wanted to say. All this was part of the young artist’s journey.
Skierlik is just outside Ventersdorp. When farmworkers were kicked off surrounding farms, they set up a place of their own called Skierlik. Thomas, like many others, has been living in this small town ever since it existed, fighting and hoping that a day will come when they too will have decent living conditions. With no success over the years, this community quit the struggle for “a better life for all”, and accepted that change would never come to Skierlik. Thomas stayed with his wife, Anna, and daughter, Elisabeth, in poverty, but in peace, until the day Johan Nel started randomly shooting and killing people, including his wife and daughter.
It hit him that what he really wanted to grapple with was the understanding that people had to die before things changed. Was that all there was for these forgotten residents? At 18, it was simply confusion in his head, but with writing and working at the play, he now knows where he’s headed.
“It’s all about education.”
And he probably includes himself as much as the audience.
Skierlik was originally staged at Mmabana Arts Centre in the North West and has since been staged at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre, Artscape and the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Now he’s awaiting more exciting plans with promises of international travel.
In the meantime, this budding artist (all of 24 now) is writing his second play.
“I don’t enjoy writing,” he says, but the desire to tell his stories is so strong, he’s driven and determined to write. “I come from an impoverished family and understand being sidelined and not being listened to,” he says.
And suddenly there’s a shifting of the clouds as this strong-willed performer states his intentions. He’s found his voice and even though he thinks he doesn’t like writing, the way he speaks and tells his stories voices a clear mind that knows what it wants to say – even if it isn’t in his home language. He is articulate and has a wise head on those young shoulders. The new play is his own story, and thus also that of the young country. Both have had to do some growing up.
The impact of what he’s doing came only after some time in performance with Skierlik. He still finds people’s reaction to his story overwhelming. When it hit him during an ovation on stage, he burst into tears. “Everyone can find themselves in the best way.”
• Skierlik has an age restriction and is not suitable for children under 14. It opens on March 21 and will run until April 13 at the Soweto Theatre. If you haven’t been to the sassy still-new Soweto theatre, this is a voice to catch.