THE CHAMPION. Written by Khayalethu Anthony. Directed by Khayalethu Mofu, with Khayalethu Anthony. Set and lighting Luyanda Somkhence. At The Baxter Theatre Centre until October 8. TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews
IN a society where violence is pervasive and concepts of masculinity are under scrutiny Champion explores the roots of both perpetrators and victims of violence in a riveting monologue that disrupts the traditional narrative.
The production is another example of the unparalleled success of The Zabalaza Theatre Festival, which showcases work selected from community theatre groups across the Western Cape.
Raw talent is given a platform and the selected winners receive mentorship and guidance to grow to their full potential. Since his nomination for Best Script Writer at Zabalaza in 2012 Anthony has enjoyed an extraordinary career. He was selected to perform alongside Dame Janet Suzman in Marion and Solomon, which was staged in Edinburgh and Washington DC.
Champion was the Best Production at the 2014 Zabalaza Festival and this run is a culmination of the mentoring process he has undergone with the festival’s artistic director Thami Mbongo.
Anthony is a storyteller par excellence and with his nimble boxing routine and hard hitting questions he punches through the fourth wall straight in to your solar plexus. The piece begins and ends with the morning after the night before.
The circular narrative imitates the cycle of violence and while the outcome seems inevitable there are moments where the possibility of a redemptive intervention seems possible, although this is never realised.
His circumstances are not unusual. As with many children, he has grown up without the presence of his biological father. Whilst the presence of a father is no guarantee of a happy childhood, the absence of any positive male role model has a profound effect on the behaviour of boys in their growing years.
A study in 2006 determined that as many as 50 % of South African children grew up without fathers with the figure being as low as 38% in some communities. While this is more prevalent in rural communities, Thulani’s story is set against the backdrop of an informal settlement in an urban area. For a brief period one of his mother’s boyfriends pays attention to him and introduces him to boxing.
The discipline and physical rigour required by the sport becomes an outlet for his pent up frustrations, but not for long. As he recounts his life story he tells of intimate relationships that are bedevilled by his experience of dysfunctional and damaging relationships and he is destined to become yet another statistic.
This is not a comfortable piece of theatre and the disruption of many commonly accepted discourses are challenged.
The young man growing up witnesses physical violence from the men in his life, but is also a victim of and witness to the emotional and psychological violence meted out by his mother. At the end Thulani throws the gaze back at the audience and society at large. At times endearing, amusing and downright charming he belies the notion of the one dimensional perpetrators of violence.
He achieves the nigh impossible task of eliciting sympathy for a man whose behaviour is brutal by laying bare his motives and honestly interrogating his actions. As he hurtles towards the inevitable ending, he draws you in to his battles.
You join him in his corner as he faces a multitude of opponents including himself, his history and those he loves. The set is carefully crafted and the realistic design emphasises the familiarities that are the background of everyday familiar and familial violence, including the “small family table in a small family home”.
The jagged corrugated iron perimeter is a fragile border between domestic and societal violence, a reminder that neither are easily confined. Champion will make you laugh, cry and consider deeply the roots and consequences of a society where the cycle of violence seems relentless and unending. Anthony has achieved his desire to prompt people to think about the role they can play in helping boys to become good young men in an emotionally engaging and highly entertaining production that is testament to the success of the Zabalaza team.