national Arts Festival Banner

Monday, July 8, 2013


(Dieketseng Mnisi, Nic Beukes and Diana Maseko)

Impressive dramatisation of Zakes Mda’s award-winning novel. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Madonna of Excelsior is a celebrated award-winning novel by Zakes Mda. The 2013 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown saw the dramatised version adapted from the novel by Kobus Moolman through a commission by PACOFS.

The idea for the production was incubated in the Novel-Script Project, a development workshop held for writers at the National Arts Festival in 2010. Funded by the Netherlands Embassy and coordinated by the Twist Project, the workshops brought together emerging South African writers and Dutch writers to explore the possibility of adapting Mda’s novel for the stage.

Madonna of Excelsior is set in 1971, when 19 citizens of Excelsior in South Africa’s white-ruled Free State were charged with breaking apartheid’s Immorality Act, which forbade sex between blacks and whites. This play focuses on the story of one such fallen Madonna (Niki) and her family, who are at the heart of the scandal. It explores the emotions and the endless searches for Niki’s daughter, Popi (a coloured girl) and her father, in order to discover her true identity.

Directed by Roel Twijnstra, the production gets off to a resounding and energetic start. It is the first time that the new Rainbow Nation councillors have been inside City Hall, let alone the council rooms. The Town Clerk of the Municipality of Excelsior is a belligerent Afrikaner who feels that the hallowed halls of the City Hall are being tainted by the Comrades from Congress.

Constantly interrupting the procedure, he is full of racist remarks such as “this is a municipality meeting not a taxi rank”. He is also battling to come to terms with the policy of accepting people he grew up with as a master/servant relationship as well as those he considered enemies during his time in the army.

There is much friction between the Town Clerk and Popi and we discover the links between the two as the story moves back into the past when the arrests were made and the impact this had on the community.

Diana Maseko delivers a powerful performance as Popi, skilfully handling the gamut of emotions the character must undergo as she searches for the truth. As her mother, Nikki, Dieketseng Mnisi provides the fine dramatic presentation we have come to expect from her while Matshidiso Thinyane as the young Nikki also impresses. Notable performances also come from Nic Beukes and Marli van der Bijl.

This is a strong ensemble piece comprising 13 members, all with good singing voices and movement ability. While the inclusion of song and dance in a dramatic piece – or even a musical – makes for a rich multi-layered production, the storyline becomes diluted if speech is drowned by song. I missed several important pieces of information in this way.

Artistic Director of PACOFS, Jerry Pooe, is in charge of music with Brandon Hewetson and Huup Laurens handling the set. The vocal coach is Jaco Bezuidenhout.

Madonna of Excelsior is an impressive dramatisation of Zakes Mda’s award-winning novel. – Caroline Smart