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Sunday, July 7, 2013


(Mbongeni Ngema and Matshitshi Ngema enact a battle scene. Pic by Val Adamson)

Tour de force performance from Mbongeni Ngema. (Review by Caroline Smart)

The venue? Rhodes Theatre in Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival.

The setting? The Place of the Pythons in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal.

The process? One of South Africa’s theatre icons, famed for a string of international stage block-busters, steps out of his music producer/playwright/director shoes and sets foot back on stage in the premiere of his new play on the Main festival programme.

Directed by Christopher John, The Zulu offers a tour de force performance from Mbongeni Ngema who proves without doubt that, after his absence from actual stage performances for 27 years, he’s still got what it takes to be a compelling and vigorous actor and storyteller.

Taking stories he heard in his youth from his blind great-grandmother, Mkhulukutshana Manqele, he has woven stories of the Zulu nation and its culture into a near-solo performance of 80 minutes, leading up to the defeat of the British forces by the Zulu army at the legendary Battle of Isandlwana.

Isandlwana is a lonely hill shaped like a sphinx close to Rorke’s Drift and is a much-visited site today. On January 22, 1879, approximately 20,000 highly disciplined Zulu warriors armed with assegais and shields as well as a number of firearms, attacked and overpowered a heavily armed column of about 1,800 British and colonial native troops.

Ngema takes on the characteristics of the well-known personalities in this story on both the Zulu and British sides. Even the performers’ dress reflects the two cultures – with Zulu traditional from the waist up and dark contemporary trousers and shoes from the waist down.

Providing music interludes and often accompanying Ngema in maskandi song as well as action and dance movements is musician Matshitshi Ngema.

With the acclaimed Sarah Roberts in charge of set design and Kenny Bolokwe handling the lighting design - the production is highly attractive visually, with sound effects adding considerable impact.

There is much humour but ultimately 80 minutes plus is a daunting process for an audience, however skilled and engaging the performer. I would suggest some judicious pruning or else an interval, although the latter would disrupt the flow of the piece.

The Zulu was presented by Committed Artists Foundation in association with the National Arts Festival, with funding by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (NLDTF). This year, the National Arts Festival paid tribute to Ngema’s contribution to South African theatre by also presenting his Asinamali as well as Woza Albert which he co-wrote with Percy Mtwa and Barney Simon.

The production now goes on a national tour, starting off at Empangeni in Zululand at the Imbizo Hall from July 25 to 28.Thereafter it performs in Mbabane, Pretoria, Johannesburg and in Cape Town at the beginning of 2014. The Zulu is also set to tour to the United States for a season at New York University’s Aaron Davis Hall in May, 2014.

Tickets for the South African tour are R150 (Tuesdays and Sundays), R180 (Wednesdays) and R200 (Thursdays to Saturdays). Book through Computicket on 0861 915 8000 or online at

For more information visit Facebook page, Mbongeni Ngema’s The Zulu, or log on to, or follow on twitter @NgemasTheZulu – Caroline Smart