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Wednesday, August 22, 2012


(Mpume Mthombeni as the ruthless and scary dictator, one of the numerous roles she takes on in this production)

Neil Coppen's Tin Bucket Drum (produced by IMBEWU Trust) mesmerizes New York.

Durban theatre-maker and playwright Neil Coppen has returned from New York alongside Tin Bucket Drum company members Mpume Mthombeni, Wake Mahlobo and Nosipho Bophela.

The tour was made possible by The Imbewu Theatre Trust, spearheaded by dynamic Cape Town producer Sam de Romijn whose intention was to use the New York run as a means to open up future touring possibilities for new South African theatre works.

Written and designed by Coppen (in his early 20’s) and directed by fellow Durbanite, Karen Logan, Tin Bucket Drum has been described as a whimsical allegory which weaves together elements of magical realism, shadow puppetry, Kabuki theatre and live percussion. The original production starred Ntando Cele in the leading role.

Coppen’s play follows the story of Nomvula, a spirited child born with a revolutionary heart-beat into a cruel and silent dictatorship. Over the last decade, the play has racked up several major awards at festivals and theatres throughout South Africa.

Coppen and his company were invited to perform for a two week engagement at the Kraine Theatre in the East Village of the city - a district fabled for its wealth of independent theatres which have provided the launching pad for theatre-makers such as Julie Taymor and Jonathan Larson (of RENT fame)

“Despite its short run” de Romijin says, “Tin Bucket Drum received a phenomenal response from New York audiences and critics. We were elated at the reception we received over our short stay and it bodes really well for IMBEWU taking further productions over in the years to come.”

New York Theatre Review selected the production as its pick of the week claiming: “So cohesive in artistic vision is this piece that it is decidedly difficult to parse out responsibility for its success. Actress Mthombeni is lifted and supported at every turn by quietly magical lighting, set, and sound design, by the ever-present, yet never distracting, significant percussionist talents of Wake Mahlobo with whom she shares the stage, and the clearly inimitable directorial force that is Karen Logan. The entire creative team works solidly as one unit to sweep you along on this tale. All of this before even getting to the beautiful story written soaringly by Neil Coppen.”

While The Examiner gave the production six-stars comparing it to Tony-Award winning Peter and the Starcatcher currently playing on Broadway: “Multi-award winning Peter and the Starcatcher could have some competition in ticket sales of this off Broadway production at $18 gives you the same heartfelt journey of any multi- Tony award winning storytelling piece of theatre. Tin Bucket Drum is a mesmerizing piece of Kabuki style African storytelling.”

The Village Voice wrote: “In a theater world full of high-flying superheroes and next-level spectacles, Tin Bucket Drum charmingly reminds us that, ultimately, what matters most is the story.”

While the Theatre is Easy Website summed up the production with: “Mthombeni really represents storytelling at its best. She gracefully and convincingly switches characters, from the confused child whose loud beating heart defies the village silence, to the ruthless and scary dictator who rules in fear. She is joined on stage by a live percussionist, Wake Mahlobo, who discretely accompanies her every move with sound, while not drawing any attention away from the main performer. The technical production is also simple but immaculate; lights change and shadows are cast in a way that perfectly frame the story's changes and twists. While the piece is composed of simple and clearly defined elements, they are integrated in such a seamless and natural way that the whole is by far greater than the individual parts. And as such, it’s actually hard to do the piece justice by describing the elements that when interweaved make it so brilliant.”

Coppen claims the tour was a highlight of his career thus far: “When I was eight years old my father built me a wooden puppet box” he says, “It folded down to fit in a car boot, so I could tour around children’s birthday parties and share my stories for pocket money. While setting up the set of Tin Bucket Drum in a New York theatre two weeks ago this memory revisited me. Although I was much older, it felt like I was in many ways still travelling with my puppet box only now telling my stories in places like New York City. It was a completely surreal and awe-inspiring experience.”

Over the short run in the city Tin Bucket Drum was also attended by various dignitaries including Ron Kunene - the producer of Disney’s Lion King on Broadway (who called the production “astounding and remarkable”), Paul D Miller aka DJ Spooky a celebrated New York artist and muso whose collaborations include work with Bjork and Yoko Ono), Elisa Jimenez, Gina Belafonte (daughter of Harry Belafonte) and Lisa Cortes --the producer of films such as Precious and Monsters Ball.

Since arriving home, Coppen and his team are taking a short break before entering into negotiations to tour the show to Iran, Japan, Kenya and Cameroon in the new year.