Theresa Smith

IT USED to be that black men left their families behind in the Eastern Cape to work in the Western Cape. Mandla Mbothwe is mildly amused that he’s doing it the other way around.

The 39-year-old theatre director joined the Steve Biko Centre (an initiative of the Steve Biko Foundation) as artistic director in February last year and has since been commuting between work in Ginsberg, King William’s Town, and home in Cape Town.

Mbothwe was aware that Lara Foot was writing what would become Did We Dance?: Ukutshona ko Mendi (The Sinking of the Mendi) when he took the job. When she maintained that he direct it, he asked to include performers from the Eastern Cape, because it tied into the centre’s mandate.

The former UCT lecturer and researcher says one of the centre’s key principles is digging up stories, but whatever work is produced needs to include and be informed by the community.

Actors were cast from Joburg, Port Elizabeth and King William’s Town and research in the Eastern Cape gave them insight into what locals remembered about an integral but forgotten part of South African naval history.

Most of the more than 600 South African soldiers trapped on the SS Mendi as it sank in British waters during World War I in 1917 were from the area, and it had a profound effect on the people who were left behind.

“This project forms part of reclaiming our stolen history, a way to allow the stories to breathe into our lives and allow younger people to interact with these stories. These stories may have been told in a different way elsewhere, but they have never filtered back to where they came from,” Mbothwe said.

He believes the oral tradition of the Eastern Cape community, and other South African communities, is rapidly diminishing, but can be replaced with a new theatrical tradition.

“Interaction in the community is communal, but one of the few ways we now get that kind of interaction is at funerals. The person who burst into praise, that’s an event, so, how do you turn that event into a performance?” mused Mbothwe.

“Our stories are being lost and sometimes we are the perpetrators. Our successes have made us ignore the most important things we can teach the world, we have managed to create millionaires, but not communities.”

He speaks fondly of his time at the Magnet Theatre, having worked his way up from intrigued audience member to actor and artistic director, working on acclaimed productions such as Ingcwaba Lendoda Lise Cankwe Ndlela – the Grave of the Man is Next to the Road and Bafana Republic 3 – Penalty Shootout and it’s these varied experiences that he is drawing on for Did We Dance?

He explained that for this production it was important to use elements that are prominent in the community, “so it’s not just the content, but also the aesthetics that remind us of other things, for example, what is a song iconic to this community?

“But we have to acknowledge that we might not be accurate to what happened. For me, as the director, it’s important to be mindful of the fact that we don’t really know what took place. So, how do we begin to tell this story, with respect for the fact that we’re trying to remember?”

He is particularly driven by content, “not for entertainment, but to tell the story”, and says there are three basic elements that will intrigue people who come to watch the performance.

“There is transformation of the world of the stage – the audience is brought into another world through sound. The story is driven by music, dance and poetic language and dialogue is mostly in English. It engages all the senses of the audience, plus your imagination.

“What you get out of it is the importance of sharing your stories with others.”

l Ukutshona ko Mendi (The Sinking of the Mendi), Market’s Barney Simon Theatre until March 16, Tuesday to Saturday (8.15pm), Sunday (3.15pm).