Music has always played a vital role in shaping the cultural landscape of South Africa, creating a soundtrack for many of the country’s important moments.
Gogo and Big Sister, a musical theatre production that is almost three years old, aims to celebrate the tunes that were given to us by some of the country’s most prolific vocalists, including Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu, Letta Mbulu, Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka, Thandi Klassen and Victoria Busisiwe Mhlongo.
The stars of the production are veteran actress Thembi Mtshali Jones, Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala and Pulane Rampoana.
Mtshali Jones wrote and workshopped the play, and also co-founded the production house Spirit Sister Productions, which presents the play. Musical director Johan Mthethwa worked closely with the cast to develop the sound for the production.
The storyline centres on a final dress rehearsal before a concert to celebrate the lives of black women musicians who lived and performed at the height of the apartheid regime.
Mtshali Jones plays the role of Gogo, an acclaimed jazz vocalist who spent a portion of her life performing on international stages while in exile.
Lushaba Madlala is Big Sister, who is also gogo’s daughter and has a tense and strained relationship with her. Little Sister is played by Rampoana. She is the apple of Gogo’s eye and has big dreams of international stardom. She isn’t afraid to name-drop occasionally to get her way.
The play is set in a backstage dressing room of a theatre. On the mirrors, each of the three women has a picture of a musical icon they admire.
The play features many different songs that have meant various things throughout the decades, from the music of Ipi’ntombi, a spirited performance of Pata-Pata, The Click Song / Mbube all the way to a hip hop remake of Kukuchi, originally done by Letta Mbulu.
Little Sister insists that the remake will bring some much-needed flair to the production, to the annoyance of Big Sister. The three women, with the accompaniment of Mthethwa on keyboard, tackle the songs with harmonies and melodies that give the epic songs a new feel.
The performance of Quit It, in an emotionally charged scene after Big Sister’s drug and alcohol habit comes to light, was the highlight of the hour-long production.
Here, the cast is forced to deal with the meat of their problems: Big Sister’s brokenness over feeling abandoned by Gogo who was following her dreams; Gogo feeling unappreciated after she went through years in exile, using her voice to make money and send it back home; and Little Sister’s resentment of Big Sister for never being her mother.
Underneath the music is layer upon layer of social issues that come to the fore as the cast members explore what apartheid took from them, and how they are now forced to build from the ruins. This echoes the stories of loss that women musicians were forced to deal with behind closed doors.
Some of them died penniless despite being responsible for hits, some spent years in exile, while others had to endure humiliation every time they performed in “white areas”.
Gogo and Big Sister is a proudly South African story told by talented South African women.
* The play showed at The Platform for one day only but will be staged at The Market Theatre later this year.