Zikhona Sodlaka and Vusi Kunene. Picture: Brett Rubin

Have you ever wondered what brokenness feels like? Well, this is what Nongogo, presented as part of the [email protected] celebration of the life and work respected South African playwright Athol Fugard, explores. 

The miniature festival of Fugard’s work comprises Train Driver, which starred John Kani and Dawid Minnaar and was directed by Charmaine Weir-Smith, and Nongogo, which is directed by James Ngcobo.

Queenie (Zikhona Sodlaka) looks to be the star of her own rags-to-riches story after finally managing to open and run a successful shebeen in Alexandra.

Yet, she’s bitter and unhappy and it all simmers just below the surface until a young, upright man Johnny (Zenzo Ngqobe) waltzes into her establishment one morning selling tablecloths. She moves from being distrustful of him to being enraptured by him. He treats her like a woman.

The other men in Queenie’s life Blackie (Peter Mashigo) and Sam (Vusi Kunene) immediately react negatively to this new romantic arrangement. She’s loaned Johnny money and seems willing to give up her shebeen for a new life and an interior decor business with him.

Blackie seems driven by an innate need to protect Queenie from the perceived threat as she’s always protected him. Sam, her former pimp turned lover turned supplier, is driven by anger and jealousy.

In this place, where the environment influences heavily how people live, we see how Patrick (Bongani Gumede) is fretting about having a fifth child and bringing said child into a wretched world of racism, unemployment and poverty.

Bongani Gumede, Peter Mashigo, Vusi Kunene and Zenzo Ngqobe. Picture: Brett Rubin

We watch as the characters battle with their demons. They fight so hard to run from their pasts, their secrets and their failures, but end up being broken by them even further. They’re trying to fix their lives, but they keep on sabotaging themselves.

In this play, sex comes through in two ways: it’s consensual or it’s rape. A discussion around respectability politics and how women should behave comes into question. Meanwhile, masculinity is examined in how to be a father or a man with disabilities, or even a man that has suffered from sexual assault.

The cast is made up of actors and an actress who are the cream of the crop in this country. I appreciated seeing Ngqobe on stage, something I did not expect. He carries the role of Johnny well.

I was also pleased with the production having actual props. The bottles on bottles of alcohol and the bare, cold plastic chairs made the feeling of a shebeen so authentic.

The production also keeps a tight leash on the dialogue, and so items like the yellow curtains, red tablecloth, and the variety of colourful cloths speak volumes about change, about brightness and about ushering in light.

Another interesting technique is how the characters move off and on stage, yet never leave the sight of the audience as they watch the action onstage with us.

In the end, Johnny and Queenie aren’t able to run from their demons. And that is the beauty of this story. Here, art mimics life. We don’t always get what we want, or the chance to save ourselves.

Nongogo is a melancholic but beautifully-written piece of theatre with dialogue that’s almost poetic and a quality cast. It would be a travesty to let such top-class theatre pass you by.