William Kentridge’s ‘The Head & The Load’ pays tribute to unsung heroes of Africa

Gregory Maqoma in 'The Head & The Load'. Picture: Stella Olivier

Gregory Maqoma in 'The Head & The Load'. Picture: Stella Olivier

Published Apr 19, 2023


After a successful debut at Tate Modern in London in 2018, which was followed by sold-out shows in New York, Amsterdam and Germany, William Kentridge’s “The Head & The Load” is headed to Mzansi for its premiere.

“The Head & The Load” is set to take place at the Joburg Theatre for a limited season, from April 21 until May 6.

This internationally-acclaimed exploration of Africa’s role in World War 1 tells the untold story of millions of black African porters and carriers who served and, in many cases, died for British, French and German battlefield forces.

A play on the Ghanaian proverb, “The head and the load are the troubles of the neck,” the historical significance of their crucial role in the conflict has remained largely unexamined for a century.

‘The Head & The Load’. Picture: Stella Olivier.

The show sees Kentridge reunite with long-time Mzansi collaborator and composer Philip Miller as well as co-composer and music director, Thuthuka Sibisi, and choreographer and principal dancer, Gregory Maqoma, from Vuyani Dance Company.

Speaking to IOL Entertainment, Maqoma said he’s thrilled to have the show finally come back to South Africa after a three-year delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“For three years, we’ve been dreaming of bringing this production back home, to Africa. For us to have it here at the Joburg Theatre is a great honour,” shared Maqoma.

“The show was curated here in Africa but it was never shown to the public, and it’s been to the most amazing spaces around the world, but it’s never been home, so it’s time for the local people to enjoy this powerful play about the African people.

“The story of African soldiers who were recruited to go to this war, to fight this European war, and that part of history is barely acknowledged, so through this production, we want to honour and celebrate those unsung heroes,” he added.

‘The Head & The Load’. Picture: Stella Olivier

Maqoma revealed that he was drawn to the project because Kentridge’s vision for the show resonated with his core values, which is to “give the voice to the voiceless”.

“When William Kentridge asked me if I wanted to join the creative team as a choreographer, I immediately jumped into the idea because the concept of paying homage to Africans appealed to me, of course the body of my work is about that, it’s about naming the nameless,” he added.

According to Maqoma, the production celebrates diverse African languages.

He pointed out that the spoken language used in the piece, including Swahili, was one of the many African languages that the porters used to communicate during the war.

Maqoma added that apart from the show being the extravaganza of all things dance, music, and powerful storytelling, “The Head & The Load” is a moving piece that is also an ode to many African troops who fought the war that wasn’t theirs to begin with.

“There is a scene in the play when we call the names of those fallen heroes, and some of them (soldiers) didn’t even come back because they were known as numbers only. And for us to be on the stage and call upon their names, give them their identity and dignity back, that's powerful.

“That is the heart of the play. We are not only saying we acknowledge you, but we’re saying you exist,” Maqoma said.

The Head & The Load. Picture: Stella Olivier

The powerful and evocative score is performed by an ensemble cast of musicians from around the globe, including South Africa, Guinea, the US, Germany, the UK and Italy – offering a perfect complement to Kentridge’s imaginative work.

This rich and multi-layered production features an international cast of 38 performers including local stars Hamilton Dlamini, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Dambuza Nqumashe and Luc de Wit.

Vocalists Ann Masina and Joanna Dudley “vividly brings history to life through a combination of music, text, dance, film projections, mechanised sculptures and shadow play”.

“The Head & The Load” will be staged at the Joburg Theatre from April 21 until May 6.

Tickets are available at Webtickets from R250.

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Tolkien's ‘The Hobbit’. Picture: Facebook

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