What does popping, locking and a nay-nay or three have in common with the legacy of anti-apartheid activist Chris Hani? At first glance, seemingly nothing.
However, as the folks from the Market Theatre Laboratory would have it, the usage of dance and music terminology commonly associated with young people is now used in telling probably one of the most untold stories of our collective history - Chris Hani and the role he played in South Africa's liberation.
And if the response to the production is anything to go by it seems the show is a hit. After being showcased at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last year, the production won the Gold Standard Bank Ovation award.
With the production playing at the Market Theatre for a two week run that began last Friday, its director and lecturer of the drama students Leila Hendriques, shared just how the production aimed to make history slightly more relateable.
“It was inspired by the musical of Alexandra Hamilton, a production that was on Broadway and was about a historical American figure that ended the slave trade in the country. The story was put to rap, hip hop and contemporary dance. At the Grammy Awards I heard a snippet of the musical,” Hendriques explained.
At round about the same time, she was teaching performance for the first years at the Market Lab. After going through the curriculum, she thought of finding an interesting way to teach this aspect.
“I wanted something contemporary and I then thought why don’t we do something on a historical figure? I thought of Chris Hani because we know so much about his death. It’s become the main thing but we don’t know much about his life,” she said.
She’s not wrong. Out of the anti-apartheid figures that we collectively know, the stories of OR Tambo and Chris Hani have become stories less told. A description of the image of Hani lying in his driveway in his tracksuit, is possibly the most common response you’ll get if you ask what people know of the man.
“We don’t know much about his life. When I began speaking to the students, they didn’t know anything really. So we embarked on that as a project. We researched, put together the information and began to tell his life story using dance, poetry and rap. We told it through the eyes of the youth. We found a useful way to tell a really important story that’s gone off our radars completely,” she said.
While the production is largely the one that some audiences may have witnessed at the arts fest, there are some tweaks that have been made - only to tighten and further enhance the story.
“When people come and watch, everyone wants to own a different part of the Chris Hani story. So someone from the SACP will ask why they aren’t represented more and they tell us more and more. While we can’t fit a whole life into an hour, it’s this growing thing,” Hendriques said.
For Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi, a dancer and ensemble member, being a part of the production touches him on a spiritual level.
“Hani was a Xhosa man. And somewhere in the production and the dancing, I have to tap into my spiritual side. It’s a little tough balancing out that I am actually on stage and when the spirit takes me away. But somewhere in that haze, I remember that I am a professional, and that I have a story to tell,” Mgeyi said.
The first time he heard about Hani, was from his grandmother in Mpumalanga who described the former SACP leader as a monument of a man.
“My grandmother had a keen interest in politics. And she’d speak of him as a man who instilled fear in the apartheid regime. I’d often wonder who that man was that could accomplish such a feat?” he said.
With hearing of Hani from mostly secondary sources, the line between fiction and truth sometimes became blurred he explains. But there was a consensus; that he was an important figure in the liberation movement.
“I’d seen his name. And photos. But when I got to first year and was part of this production, my world was opened up to so much more,” he said.
Mgeyi added that he believes the production would attract younger viewers.
“Ukuhamba u’kbona. It will open their minds to another world but also provide context for some of the socio-political issues we’re currently facing. And it’ll teach you a thing or two about him,” he said.
Mgeyi finished off by saying their dream was to see the production go to Cofimvaba, Hani’s birthplace. So the community there can see what an icon they gave birth to.
* Chris Hani: The Legacy is currently showing at the Market Theatre until January 28.