Themba was a scribe associated with some of the finest literary work that this country has seen.
The production is about two years old, having first graced the stage of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Veteran actor Sello Maake Ka-Ncube takes on the role of Themba.
In the director’s seat is theatre luminary Vanessa Cooke, who has worked to bring the words of playwright Siphiwo Mahala to life.
Ka-Ncube’s relationship with Themba’s work began one fateful day in Hillbrow when he walked into an Exclusive Books shop.
“Walking into that bookshop It was at the most difficult time of my life, because I was contemplating giving up acting. I wasn’t getting roles that stretched me. And there were no playwrights writing those kind of plays. I felt like, what’s there to do?
“And then I walked into that bookshop, I bought this book, read it and I read about a life I could relate to. Not just a life, but it was written in such exquisite English,” he laughed.
This was in 1989, and would lead Ka-Ncube to attempt to put together a theatre production of Themba’s life from this experience.
“I wanted to do a one-man show then. Then Siphiwo came later on and said ‘look, I’ve written a play on Can Themba and I know of your affinity to him’.
“The play initially had about 10 characters. I had a very theatrical conversation with him about the difficulties of having too many people in the cast. Producing it would be a mission.
“Then I said ‘make it a one-man show’, I wanted a one-man show as a role to stretch me, I kind of marketed myself to him and here we are,” he added.
House of Truth is an exploration of Daniel Canodoce “Can” Themba’s life and times. It is set mostly at 111 Ray Street in Sophiatown, which was Themba’s apartment.
The concept of the House of Truth was a place where people were often invited to sit with Themba and would be drawn into having robust engagements.
Deriving its name from this place, Mahala who is working on his PhD on Themba, has put together a compelling and complex exploration of Themba’s life, laced with humour and wit.
“It’s a one-man show that doubles as a period piece, it’s firmly located in 1960s Sophia- town and features mostly Themba in conversation, although the themes of the issues tackled in the play still remain relevant in South Africa today.”
Ka-Ncube will be immersing himself in the life of Themba for the umpteenth time in a period of two years. For him, the difference between when he first took on the role and now is that back then, he was simply worried about remembering his lines.
Now, he allows himself to explore the role. For him, the joy is in the ability to explore Themba’s life for 80 minutes.
“With every role you play, you open up certain dormant elements about yourself. You recognise how at times you’re similar to this person. I don’t believe you can ever actually become a character.
“The script says it all What I do is I look at the series of actions and walk according to that map. A repetition of these actions then leads me to being immersed in the role, being in a trance-like state.
“I’ve got to a point where I am seeing a relationship between acting and religion, it’s a belief. They give you a role, you read and re-read it to a point where you believe that these actions are yours.”
Veteran actor Sello Maake Ka-Ncube in The House of Truth. Picture: Twitter
Ka-Ncube and Cooke make for an interesting pair, with Vanessa being a woman small in stature, who is equally soft spoken, while Sello is tall, with a presence that fills the room. It is the understanding of each other’s strengths and quirks that has made the production a success.
For Cooke, working with productions such as this is the opportunity for the country’s theatre industry to revive itself. “I think for a long time after 1994, people didn’t know what to write. But the young writers right now are telling great stories and that’s where we’re going.
“A lot of political theatre, issues that were put on the back burner, like women’s issues For a while theatre was unsure of itself Meandering around,” she said.
From the time she initially interacted with Themba’s stories as a student, Cooke remembers being moved by the work. The killing of the melting pot of culture that was Sophiatown, was the first major shock of the apartheid system to her.
And in directing the work, she has aimed to keep the vitality of Themba alive. And working with Ka-Ncube to breathe life into the words of Mahala.
“We wanted to bring to life the man; that crazy guy, that drunk guy, that clever and witty guy. The realist. His pain as well. But it’s funny too,” said Cooke.
And for those who have never interacted with Themba or the Drum writers, the production provides the perfect introduction to the man and the time they lived in.
In Cooke’s words: “As Can says, I hope, I hope, I hope. Hope and me are good buddies. The production allows you to see that man. In a book it’s not quite the same,” she pointed out.
* The play runs until November 18. Tickets are available from Computicket.