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Friday, April 22, 2011


Masterful production of the groundbreaking Tshepang by Lara Foot Newton, translated by Bheki Mkhwane into isiZulu, brilliantly starring him and Silindile Ndlovu. (Review by Maurice Kort)

Headlines were made in 2001 by the brutal rape of a nine-month old baby girl, surpassed by the subsequent arrest of six men for the gang rape. They were later found to be innocent and that the rape had been perpetrated by the boyfriend of the little girl's mother in whose care the baby had been left while the mother had gone out drinking in a shebeen. Lara Foot Newton, who had a daughter of about the same age at the time, used these events to write her one act play Tshepang, appropriately "sub-titled" Based on Twenty Thousand True Stories since this unbelievable rape of such a young child had brought to light many further acts of abuse, rape and sodomy of young children, even of a five month old baby.

Although the narrative of the play was inspired by the story and events of Baby Tshepang, and thousands like her, the town in which the play is set, the events and the characters are purely fictional and Lara Foot Newton has credited Bheki Vilakazi for his help and research in Louisvaleweg, in the northern Cape, which was the town where the rape had occurred. The play had been performed to great critical and public acclaim over the years since its first appearance at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2003, throughout South Africa. It has also been performed in both English and Afrikaans, and overseas.

To bring this important subject, and the excellent play, to a wider audience, it was subsequently translated into isiZulu by Bheki Mkhwane and brought to the stage at the Ekhaya Multi Arts Centre, Kwa Mashu, by Mopo Productions under the deft direction of Maurice Podbrey with Bheki Mkhwane and Ntando Cele in this hard-hitting two hander in 2008.

I reviewed the production for artSMart at the time (October 7, 2008) and have quoted considerably from that review here. At the time, I mentioned that the play strongly deserved greater exposure in further venues in Durban and that the Playhouse Loft Theatre would be an ideal venue and its management should rush to book the production, to the benefit of all. Nothing was done until the newly-launched Durban Theatre Company, Just in Time Productions launched by veteran theatre producer/director Maurice Podbrey and theatre personality Bheki Mkhwane, included this play in their trilogy for a short season at the Playhouse Loft Theatre - full kudos to them.

Although the subject matter is so awful to contemplate with the extent of child rape occurring in South Africa, and increasing each year, this difficult subject needs to be brought into the open so that it can be considered and discussed. This play does it admirably with its poetic style, metaphor and striking visual imagery and is a very powerful tool against child abuse, deserving all the attention it can get.

This new production, again directed by Maurice Podbrey and starring Bheki Mkhwane in the pivotal role of Simon who caries almost all the action and virtually all the dialogue, now has Silindile Ndlovu as Ruth, the mother of the raped Baby Tshepang. Simon carves wooden figures which put bread on his table - and enables him to buy his cheap wine. Integral to the plot are a grass broom, a loaf of bread, a bottle of cheap wine and a nativity set which Simon brings out from under a blanket. These are works of art in their own right, bringing as the figures do a crossover into African culture.

Through Simon we get an insight to the people of the village where "nothing ever happens"and the lives of the villagers, warts and all, often with delightful humour. Ruth first appears with a small bed tied on her back with a blanket sitting on a heap of salt rubbing the salt into animal skins. Also on the set is a bed, the home of Simon, with the village in the distance, superbly depicted by models of small houses.

Although I understand no isiZulu, Bheki Mkhwane's riveting performance again had me spellbound, and indeed also the most attentive and appreciative audience of nearly 50 souls. One had to smile with him at his jokes and inflections, even if one did not completely understand the narrative and be moved by his acting. Indeed, his facial expressions and body movements speak volumes and no doubt he is doing full justice to the script, judging from the vociferous reactions of the audience.

Although Bheki Mkhwane carries the bulk of the play as he has all the dialogue and much of the movement over the whole stage, Silindile Ndlovu as the mother of Tshepang has no less of a role in the two-hander and one cannot help but have her in one’s sight at all times. Her body movements convey all her sadness and despair and show how she is completely lost in her own world of unbearable memories. How she conveys her exhaustion, purely in her body language, with her almost frantic rubbing of the salt into the animal skins is most impressive and convincing. Both the actors immerse themselves completely in their roles.

The all too short season of the play at the Playhouse Loft Theatre runs until April 23 at 19h30 and on April 24 at 15h00. Booking through Computicket and 083 915 8000.