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Monday, July 13, 2015


(Reviews from the artSMart team at the 2015 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown)

(Dobs Madotyeni, Zanele Radu, Joanna Evans, Roeline Daneel, Francis Chouler, Faniswa Yisa and Emily Child. Pic: Oscar O'Ryan / Baxter Theatre Centre)

Well directed and performed, a stark reminder of the abuse of political power. (Review by Caroline Smart)

2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of legendary South African theatre-maker Barney Simon in 1995. To honour Simon and his work, the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town has restaged his riveting docudrama Born in the RSA. This was presented it in Grahamstown this year in association with the National Arts Festival.

The play is directed by Thoko Ntshinga who played the role of Thenjiwe in the original production in 1985. The original cast also included Fiona Ramsay, Terry Norton, Vanessa Cooke, Neil McCarthy, Timmy Kwebulana and Gcina Mhlope. It was a workshop process and their improvisations were melded into a series of interconnecting monologues that escalated into a riveting drama which toured the UK and the USA.

While feeling much honoured at being chosen, Ntshinga was initially hesitant at taking on the role of director as she felt that it was too huge a task to “fill those big shoes”. However, on reflection she acknowledged the fact that the piece was still relevant today.

“It takes us back to what we fought for all those years ago,” she says. “Freedom!! It reminds us of the passion with which we demanded our freedom. It reminds us of how we have allowed ourselves to be sidetracked. How we quickly let down our guard when we thought freedom was achieved. Barney wanted the world to know how different people from different walks of life, were affected by the state of emergency. By bringing this production back to life we not only celebrate his legacy we also remember this country’s painful past and dark history for future generations to take note.”

Audiences privileged to see this production will acknowledge that the work is indeed relevant today, both a reminder of a painful past and a warning against complacency when dealing with the considerable problems and challenges of South Africa today.

Patrick Curtis’s set design is very effective. He uses a series of flats and linked platforms covered in newspaper headlines of the time. Ntshinga has placed her cast well in this space as the story unfolds and we meet the various characters.

The action moves mainly in monologue narrative form and covers a period in the lives of a female activist Thenjiwe Bono (Faniswa Yisa), her sister Sindiswa Bona (Zanele Radu), and their friend Zacharia Melani (Dobs Madotyeni).

Then there’s undercover police activist Glen Donahue (Francis Chouler) and his wife Nicky (Roeline Daneel) whose marriage falls part when she finds out that he is involved with a feisty young art teacher/activist Susan Lang (Joanna Evans). Into the mix comes Mia Steinman (Emily Child), an attorney who assists those who come into conflict with the police. A further problem is that Sindiswa’s son has also been arrested after a stoning incident.

The production is a stark reminder of the abuse of political power. There are fine and highly credible performances all round especially from Faniswa Yisa and Joanna Evans. A powerful and impressive speech by Dobs Madotyeni was completely riveting. He also showed that he has a good singing voice.

Barney Simon firmly believed that culture could change society. 20 years on, let’s hope that this production will resonate as strongly as it did the first time around. – Caroline Smart

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