Aubrey Sekhabi. Picture: Supplied

Storytelling at its most exhilarating. This is the work of writer, director and theatre producer, Aubrey Sekhabi, whose musicals Marikana – The Musical and Freedom have set the stage for a new and rousing genre of South African theatre.

This genre can best be described as musical theatre for the people, about the people: musical theatre with real social significance.

Sekhabi has, during his prolific career as a creator of dramatic theatre, consistently been telling true stories about real people confronted with actual challenges. 

Within a musical theatre frame, he now uses current and historic affairs to stimulate social awareness in a creative and entertaining fashion.
His musicals tell stories about people who live through significant socio-political happenings that shape history and alter lives.

Upon seeing Marikana – The Musical and Freedom, one is struck by the intensity of the theatre experience. This one can firstly ascribe to Sekhabi’s stirring use of music and dance, which resonate with the audience’s cultural identity. Sekhabi describes Africans as a singing and dancing people. The theatre experience accordingly becomes one of communal celebration. 

Marikana. Picture: Sanmari Marais

Secondly, by telling stories with which the audience intimately relates, Sekhabi involves his audience in a deeply visceral way. Both Marikana – The Musical’s reminiscing of the fateful massacre, and Freedom’s “fees must fall” expose are permeated by concerns much deeper than simply the events in themselves. Ultimately, they profoundly and poignantly aim to repair and preserve people’s dignity.

The popularity of Sekhabi’s “African musicals” is evident in the frequent capacity houses they receive. Sekhabi is excited about the many new audience members that the productions are drawing, many of whom have never been to the theatre before. 

Sekhabi says that audience members have often told him that they were unaware that theatre could be this exciting, and that they look forward to seeing more.

He says that art should always examine the status quo. In so doing, theatre confronts that which obstructs real freedom and true democracy. John Kani explains it as “telling stories that complement our democracy”, a democracy that is perpetually shaped by our actions and values.

Different to the protest theatre and propaganda theatre of yesteryear, with its inherent persuasive intent and pertinent objectives, Sekhabi’s musical theatre productions, although they centre on socio-political affairs, remain unbiased and without an agenda, other than telling the stories as accurately as possible, while bringing to life the people who are affected by these circumstances.

Freedom the Musical. Picture: Sanmari Marais

In the creating of Marikana – The Musical, Sekhabi had to be particularly cautious to staunchly stick to the facts, as voiced by those who had first-hand accounts in witnessing the disturbing events. 

Having been such a sensitive and politically-charged incident, he had to intently guard against unfounded interpretations, biases and assumptions.

In Freedom Sekhabi manages to address not only the central issue of the frustrations surrounding free education, but also fervently speaks out against adverse behaviours so frequently occurring in modern South African living. These include violence, abuse, rape, racism and corruption.    

SekhabiHe believes that theatre, with the opportunities it poses for communal discussion, can powerfully contribute to getting the process of healing under way.

Freedom the Musical. Picture: Sanmari Marais. Supplied

For Sekhabi, the ultimate purpose of his theatre is indeed to unite people. By the same token it reminds us to persistently examine our own integrity.

The success of the African musical comes at an opportune time, when so much emphasis is being placed on Afrocentricity in the training of new artists at a tertiary level. Sekhabi’s musicals are indeed the embodiment and quintessence of Africanisation within the arts. 

He is optimistic about South African theatre, and specifically the strides that African theatre has been made in recent years. He believes that the theatre industry will be ready to absorb and sustain the influx of new African artists.

Following in Sekhabi’s footsteps, but with a different approach, the Musical Theatre Faculty of the Tshwane University of Technology later this month is staging its own African musical, Ngoma – The Musical, later this month. Ngoma dza Dzivha Fundudzi (Drums of the Water Spirits) tells the tales of Vhavenda mystical deities and legends of sacred spaces. 

Written and directed by Hulisani Ndou, the musical explores African spirituality and the seat of power in the traditional Vhavenda society. 

The production unearths the meticulous patterns and rhythms, poise and principles of Vhavenda’s cultural essence as an embodiment of African aesthetics, comprising of surreal visuals, expressive and stylised acting, symbolic and illusory dance and movement formations, and cathartic sounds of African voices and instruments. 

Ndou says that “within a modernising Afrika, it is essential that storytellers forge modern mythologies and legends that embody the essence of our ancient traditions and ethos with intentions of placing our Africanness at the centre of our progressive Afrocentric discourse”.
* Ngoma – The Musical runs from June 13 to 23 at the Breytenbach Theatre in Sunnyside, Pretoria. For bookings, phone 012 382 2630/082 884 8946 (during office hours) or e-mail [email protected]