In recent years a significant number of theatre productions have had as their objectives the highlighting of social injustices and giving impetus to social change.
These productions include Audrey Sekhabi’s runaway successes Marikana - the Musical and Freedom and the confrontational collaborative drama The Fall, now at the State Theatre.
In several of these productions, testimonial account is given of authentic experiences of social inequalities, discrimination and racism within the real world of South African living.
In The Fall students from UCT protest against the perpetuating colonial status quo of their education and demand the “fall” of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. This campaign leads to a wider “Fees Must Fall” movement and a demand for decolonisation of curriculums and education.
Arts journalist and theatre researcher Adrienne Sichel pertinently calls this theatre of social justice. This is vital theatre that not only calls for social change but, due to the rich contextualising nature of theatre, personifies social affairs through significant multi-layered interpretations that draw one into a personal, visceral and sympathetic experience of the issues at hand.
There has been a lot of talk about the healing that cathartic theatre experiences can bring about. The question, however, is whether, when so much focus is placed on resentment and retribution, reminiscence and reiteration through the re-living of social injustices can bring about social healing.
Once we have acknowledged and paid respect to our hurts, what will our prognosis be for attaining real social healing? What will such health look like? Will theatre-makers create theatre that strategises reconciliation in an effort to unite our fractured nation? Do we have visionaries who will further the cause of uniting a nation towards true humanitarian prosperity for all?
Such endeavours may necessitate contemplation of the fundamentals that lie at the very heart of being human and that which we value as significant in our pursuit of making this human experience meaningful and ultimately gratifying.
One such enlightened artist is director and choreographer Mduduzi Nhlapo, whose dance theatre work KIU will be performed at the approaching National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.
Nhlapo explains the essence of KIU by quoting Renaissance politician Niccolò Machiavelli, who said: “If you want to destroy a man, destroy him spiritually.”
In KIU (the Swahili word for “drought”) Nhlapo ingeniously employs the reverence of an ancient African traditional belief system and its poignant cultural significance to metaphorically arrive at universal truths about human prosperity.
KIU draws inspiration from the ancient African rain dance of the Bolobedu people, also known as the Lovedu. The Balobedu, a Bapedi group that in the 1500s settled in the north of what is now the Limpopo Province, have the distinction of being the only tribe in Africa still ruled by a female monarch. This ruler, successively called Modjadji the Rain Queen, is believed to have magical powers in delivering rainfall and ending drought.
The magical powers attributed to the Rain Queen of the Lovedu have passed from mother to daughter for many generations. The queen’s powers are demonstrated annually during a rain-making ceremony taking place in the Ga-Modjadji settlement.
Nhlapo describes the Modjadji’s mission as a spiritual uniting of people. This attainment is consecrated by the tribe’s ancestors in the delivering of rainfall. However, the Rain Queen is met by a state of spiritual dystopia, manifested in acts seated in strife, greed, pride and jealousy, the very roots of drought.
KIU is a profound and moving dance experience. Nhlapo’s organic creative approach to his choreography and the merging thereof with meticulously crafted Afrocentric musical tones by composer Thapelo Shosana make for riveting theatre. Nhlapo describes the work as “raw, sensitive, intense, hostile, sensuous, meditative and soul-searching”.
Healing will not come from retribution. Nor will it come from a naïve notion of forgiveness. As Nhlapo is suggesting, self-contemplation and spiritual acuteness are first steps towards personal and social healing, the uniting of people and, ultimately, their communal prosperity.
KIU will be performed in Grahamstown on July 1 and 2 and then will return to the State Theatre from July 13 to 24.