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Monday, July 6, 2015


The Rainbow Nation? (Review by Raymond Perrier)

So many of us dream of a South Africa in which people are working together, dark-skinned and light-skinned and every shade in between, wealthy and poor, urban and rural, male and female. A country in which creativity is encouraged and then disciplined in a way that it can really deliver. In which a variety of cultural threads, local and international, are brought together to make a tapestry of sound and light and colour. In which technology is harnessed but not without losing the humanity that makes it accessible. In which energy is able to flourish and then inspire all those who come close to it.

Well, if this is your dream I urge you to rush this week to Soldiers in the City at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre to see the dream come true. The Young Performers of PANSA, the Performing Arts Network of Southern Africa, directed by the Chair of the organisation, Themi Venturas, are delivering a performance which really does make good on the promise of the Rainbow Nation. Literally, since one of the main sponsors of the programme is Rainbow Chicken!

The 22 performers are astonishingly all aged 14 to 18, and yet they perform with a maturity and discipline that many older students and professionals would envy. They come from schools across Durban, public and private, and also from schools in Hammarsdale that are supported by Rainbow Chicken.

The content of the show – three gangs of university-age kids rivalling each other but finally coming together to defeat the criminals in their midst – points towards our hopes, and their hopes, for a better South Africa.  But it is in the delivery of the performance that the hopes are realised.

It would be so easy to put on a good show just using well-educated middle-class kids, or to create an energetic but raw performance from township children, or let young people just do the things that they are good at and not challenge them further. But the production team don’t take this easy way out. Instead they bring together young people from across the groups in South Africa who so rarely mix and give them a structured way of displaying their creativity.

No youth show can be without its weaker moments but the variety is important because it means that all the young people are given a chance to sing solos, all of them dance, and often they have to do the two at the same time. Daisy Spencer’s choreography takes the vibrant energy that only teenagers have and then marshalls it into synchronised movements and ordered lines, often within quite complex routines. Des Govender, the voice coach, has clearly helped each of the young people to ‘find their voice’ and, in most cases, sing in a style and a register that suits them well. And Dawn Selby as Musical Director holds all this together with a band that for most of the time was well-balanced and able to support the voices without overwhelming them.

I was initially worried about the music: too many of the early numbers were rap songs that are repetitive and can be used to disguise a poor singing style.  But when the ensemble delivered the haunting Seasons of Love from the musical Rent we heard just how good their voices are and what genuine and mature emotion such young people could deliver.

While commending the whole group, I also want to name a few individuals for outstanding performances.  The trio singing Tears in Heaven – Joshua Arnold, Leah Mari and Ntobeko Sishi – could not have left many dry eyes in the house – and it also meant that we did not lose the talents of Sishi after he was prematurely killed off in the 1st Act. Nokukhanya Madlala, Benjamin Wiblin, Phelani Ndlovu and Katlin Moore also gave especially memorable performances. But one of the successes of the show is that the young people genuinely looked as if they were there to perform as a group not to compete for the limelight. In that context perhaps it is not surprising that the two best numbers were the eternally moving Lean on Me and the Black-eyed Peas remix of Sting’s song Alien as Union.

I am told that parts of the show were developed through workshops by the young people themselves and inevitably some of this material worked better than others. But it is creditable that in the end they inhabited music that is from 40 years ago no less than the music of their own generation. Perhaps the idea to have cellphone messaging flashing up on the screen came from them. It added to the fun, though rather strained, plausibility – every single message used correct spelling and full punctuation; and they were mostly in the form of SMS rather than the What’s App, BBM and Facebook messages that most young people actually use. 

The more troubling weakness the night I saw the show was the slow responsiveness of the sound system which meant that too often the singers’ microphones did not cut in until the third or fourth word.

But these are small complaints in an otherwise inspiring evening.  I left reassured that the future of South Africa is safe if it is in the hands of such immensely creative young people.  And also re-inspired – as seemingly the Department of Arts & Culture also is – that the performing arts can be a vital way of teaching life skills to young people and giving them a way of making their contribution to wider society.

Presented by the PANSA Young Performers, Soldiers in the City runs until July 12 in the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre. Tickets booked at Computicket. - Raymond Perrier