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Wednesday, February 2, 2022


(A stone was placed on a young man's back. Symbolizing body to land and land to bodies. (Itshe in English means “Stone”.') Image by Val Adamson)

A review of Philisiwe Twijnstra’s production ITSHE by Fali Rose, a Live performance lecturer at AFDA and Theatre reviewer, Actor, Voice Artist, Academia.

… Twijnstra’s strong directing makes ITSHE a futuristic spectacular, with surreal setting by Greg King, opening up a world so magical yet so familiar to where we are as a country. (Review by Fali Rose)

I was invited to witness a preview of ITSHE presented by the Durban University of Technology in August 2021, where second year drama students of Courtyard Theatre embark on a story that deserves to be told. Although, due to Covid, this was only open to Drama Students from DUT.

The set design by Greg King, IsiZulu Translation by Ntando Cele, lighting by Lerato Ledwaba, stage management by Thamsanqa Khumalo with Assistance Director by Inezile Hlophe.

ITSHE is breaking boundaries and expelling socio-cultural norms, an eloquent isiZulu tale that probes at cultural norms and practices that may impact negatively on womxn and nations at large.

Philisiwe Twijnstra’s mixture of imagination, magical-realism, and folklore, presents two tribes of KeVa and Siriva nestled in a secret moonlit forest where themes of gender, identity, black queer love, greed, incest, hunger for power and paranormal magic run galore.

The prologue is an immersive experience for the audience who under a night sky embalmed with a fierce fire and chanting, witness ‘Mother of Darkness’ casting a spell on a the young Okwayise, played by Mthobisi Gumede, Sifiso Innocent Pohlo, and Siyanda Magubane a handsome sturdy young man of royal blood.

On the stage luminated by a foretelling twilight, we meet Nonombe our protagonist played by Sbongakonke Xaba, Slindokuhle Ngcobo, and Mandisa Mngoma also of royal blood who sits in angst surrounded by menacing spirits presenting her the fate as future Queen of Keva.

Twijnstra explains that since this is a bigger cast, she triple-cast the leads; every night a different actor will spearhead the show.

This evening, a young actress Sbongangakonke Xaba who plays the first Nonombe approaches the role with a fierce command and plays an inner conflict with her eyes that suggest a rebellion against what is expected of her in the kingdom. Mandisa Makhathini, Nokubongwa Khanyile and Nolwazi Lukhele portray three wise deity gogos that inform the fate that awaits Nonombe, these roles are executed with focus although sometimes actors miss cues and emotional beats, it is advisable for actors to listen before reacting.

Okwayise appears with his royal servant-cum-lover, uNonkinga played by the Nomzamo Nyadi. His immediate attraction to Nonombe sees Nonkinga spew insults of jealousy and contempt when she sees her lover pining for Fafa (Indlovukazi) Nonombe whom she calls ‘an uncultured city prude who is ‘not woman enough’ and far removed for the Keva culture, a commentary inciting questions of society may look down on individuals who embrace their cultural hybridity.

Nomzamo Nyadi’s performance as 'Nonkinga' is layered, her body language speaks volumes, and she can deliver nuanced emotions.

There is a quest of unrequited love between Okwayise and Nonombe. Here we are confronted with the male gaze on the female body as Nonombe harshly rejects Okwayise’s advances, he laughs and shames her claiming she has lost touch with her culture because she is not willing to cower down to the advances of a confessing his love. Mthobisi Gumede has a good command of the stage, but we lose some of his dialogue, with good articulation and exploring emotional depth, he promises to be a captivating actor.

Ibutho appear dressed in unconventional tribal-print kilts and break the awkward tension of Okwayise’s pursuit with song and dance as they prepare for a hunt in the forest. The actors here are eager to please and display a myriad of characters representing the male stance in the Zulu culture. Amabutho is a powerful symbol of the Zulu nation who relentlessly fight for the rightful uphold of a kingdom, but will the same men fight to protect the human rights of a young womxn?

The moon rises and retires Nonombe reveals to the audience her secret love for another woman, ‘Nomakhwezi’ the true love of her life, and her motivation to fight against this arranged union between her and Okwayise.

Simultaneously, she will be against the patriarchal ideologies on the role of womxn. We are enthralled when we finally meet Nomakhwezi who is Nonombe’s lover, they share a palpable spark and attraction, they are spellbinding and pull you in a quest to embrace black queer love. Although Sphiwo Shange is reluctant to delve into the role of lover, the pair offer a flirtatious affair. The next moment is pivotal as we see a black character portray a panic attack on stage, a call to black cultures to perceive the reality and struggles of mental health issues. Nonombe is comforted by her lover who calmly tells her ‘Just. Breathe.’

Nontobeko Phakathi plays the role of Mother Queen of Keva as ' Fafama' who has just lost her husband but instead of mourning she is dressed for glory and her only objective in the present moment is to marry Nonombe off to Kingdom of Siriva royalty to solidify her own Queendom. The actors here can afford some moments of building tension in their strained mother-daughter relationship.

This looming union between the two was written in stone by the dead King Mafa but before he is even buried there is confusion and upheaval in the royal household, a nemesis of what South African witnessed when the Zulu Queen Mother passed on.

More secrets lurk in the forest, the actors live and breathe organically in the set designed by Greg King that mimics a dark warm womb. The Matriarchs of the two tribes appear in confrontation, the actors stand head-to-head like two bulls in a kraal lamenting a love shared for the fallen king and sacrifices must be made to solidify stronger blood ties between Keva and Siriva.

Infidelity, barrenness, and incest mark this exchange, the Nontobeko Phakathi and Sthabile Zondo tread thinly on the trope of ‘angry black womxn’ as they tend to shout at each other playing a general tone of anger, use of projection and exploring more vulnerable tones in voice and emotions would improve this exchange.

A wedding is to take place, and we see Ibutho surround the couple in a ritual of consummating the union symbolized by an image of white cloth smeared with bloody paint. What if Nonombe can take a stand for love?

What if womxn finally go against the adage of ‘you strike a woman, you strike a rock?'

This is the feministic tone that underpins the outcome of this tale.

If change can happen, ITSHE challenges every man to be accountable and stand up for their nation to protect it just as they would their own children.

This performance from the DUT Drama students was a pleasure to watch, it was the cast of witches that kept underscoring each scene with subtle, eerie gesture accompanied by the drum beat, played by Philani Dude, Asanda Mhlungu, Busani Dube, Mondli Mthethwa and Nkululeko Advocate Kubheka that harnessed the possibility of acceptance, love, and the empowered female figure accompanied by Twijnstra’s strong directing makes ITSHE a futuristic spectacular, with surreal setting  by Greg King, opening up a world so magical yet so familiar to where we are as a country.

The show ran from August 21-24, 2021 and was strictly open to DUT Drama Students Only. - Review by Fali Rose