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Saturday, December 19, 2009


(Pic: A powerful scene from “Lion of the East”)

Mbongeni Ngema revisits the life of struggle hero Gert Sibande and the Potato Boycott in his high-energy and thought-provoking musical. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Commissioned by Mpumalanga Province, Mbongeni Ngema’s latest musical Lion of the East, marks the 50th Anniversary of the Potato Strike which took place in Bethal in the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) in 1959. It was spearheaded by Gert Sibande, a leader among farm workers who was committed to the plight of poor people in the rural areas. His name is entrenched in the history of the struggle as a legendary political and labour activist.

After having received high accolade in Mpumalanga for its premiere performances, Lion of the East is now running in the Playhouse Opera presented by The Playhouse Company in partnership with Committed Artists, the Department of Economic Development and Tourism, Mpumalanga Department of Culture, Sport and Recreation and SABC 1.

Prisoners were sent to the Bethal farms for manual labour. Dressed in sacks, brutalised and living in squalor they were forced to dig for potatoes with their bare hands. Gert Sibande helped journalists, including Michael Scott from the Rand Daily Mail expose the slavery conditions and the expose was later pursued in Drum magazine in 1952 by Henry Nxumalo and Ruth First.

Gert Sibande received his title “Lion of the East” from a scenario similar to the biblical story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Beaten and broken by the police, he was left to die in a forest inhabited by lions. In what was considered a miraculous event, he emerged unscathed four days later, the lions having given up and departed after having sat and watched him for most of the time.

The storyline of Lion of the East commences as three journalists from Drum magazine approach the aged but feisty Ma Dlamini whose lover Zwelethu had been sent to Bethal farm, whereupon his toes had been cut off so that he couldn’t escape. In a stand-out performance, Seipati Sothoana gives a beautiful rendition of this character, a reminder of so many formidable women who have passed on. Women who would have battled with the injustices of apartheid - and all that went with it - but who never lived to see South Africa reach its democratic status.

As the three Drum journalists, Evelina Mahlangu (Mmakgosi Kgabi), Hluphekile Dlamini (Velephi Mnisi) and Christina Morgan (Marissa Fourie) drive the story. We meet Ma Dlamini’s granddaughter Emelina (Lorato Thekisho) and Ma’s shebeen owner neighbour Mampinga (Thabile Mzobe) as well as Gert Sibande himself – a strong impassioned performance by Bhoyi Ngema. There’s also the brutal owner of the farm Gert van der Westhuizen (Jaco van Heerden) and his sycophantic sidekick Ndlela (the ever-dependable Bheki Mqadi). Thandeka Magagula impressed with her soaring vocal numbers as Nomvula, the young Ma Dlamini, as did Siphosethu Mnisi as her lover, Zwelethu Mthimkhulu.

Over the past 30 years, Mbongeni Ngema has presented an impressive array of productions from Asinamali and Sarafina to The Zulu and 1906 Bhambada The Freedom Fighter. Lion of the East offers all the trademarks of an Ngema production – excellent direction, impeccable diction, good cast placing and impressive lighting as well as Sarah Roberts’ effective costume and sturdy scaffolding set design. He also pulls no punches in the fight scenes which are highly dramatic and credible. The 40 strong cast is supported by a 10-piece band and towards the end of the show, the audience got what it was waiting for - a powerful and passionate number from Velephi Mnisi.

I did hope that Ngema would divert a little from his standard dance presentation. The first half fulfilled my hopes in the sense that musical sequences had the singers placed around the stage and dance pieces were performed by smaller groups – and there were some good tap numbers. However, after interval we were back with the standard format – solid lines, staccato lyrics with abrupt phrase endings and fairly aggressive choreography which sees the disciplined dancers rendered fairly mechanical. And the inevitable white takkies!

However, that’s what his fans expect and that’s what he gives them to ecstatic response. So, I guess … “Don’t fix it, if it ain’t broke!” As Mbongeni Ngema described the show himself, it’s a “slice of history in an entertaining way … but at the end of the day, it’s showbiz!”

Lion of the East runs in The Playhouse Drama until January 3. Tickets R145 booked at Computicket or on 083 915 8000 or call 031 369 9540 (office hours). – Caroline Smart