Return of the Zulu

2013-07-07 14:00

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Mbongeni Ngema, better known for his writing, composing and directing, dons leopard skin for a notable comeback to the stage, writes Percy Mabandu.

Mbongeni Ngema gives a notable comeback performance in his much-anticipated play, The Zulu, which premiered last week at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Directed by Christopher John, Ngema’s play tells the grand tale of his people, the amaZulu, as it was related to him as a child by his great-grandmother Mkhulutshana Manqele.

He invokes the classic motif of an African child sitting at his grandmother’s feet to imbibe tales of time gone by.

He is joined in his effort by regular collaborator Matshitshi Ngema, a renowned maskanda musician.

The two take their audience on an elaborate and intimate journey through a historical narrative that many people presume to know well.

The story of how King Shaka, son of Senzangakhona, shaped himself a mighty empire through skilful conquest has been told many times over.

It litters scores of films, historical documents and literature.

Ngema’s is another appropriation of the story.

By beginning his account from his family’s experience, he lends a special touch of biographical inclination.

Ngema personalises the grand narrative and highlights the human quality of national histories.

It is made even more poignant by how audiences respond to the play.

As people watch Ngema going through his paces on stage, many are struck by a need to locate themselves in the unfolding narrative.

As Ngema charts his way through stories of Zulu warriors fighting against King Moshoeshoe’s regiment, or the triumph over the British army at Isandlwana, the audience projects their allegiances on different sides of the historical divide.

Sesotho speakers or even descendents of English or Dutch settlers suddenly find themselves registering personal emotional responses to the shared heritage as it’s presented on stage.

Ngema’s capacity for humour and the story’s own propensity for pathos make this play delightfully dynamic.

There are resonances with everybody’s own nostalgia for their cherished memories of their grandmother and the historical emotion attached to any discussion of colonialism and its impact.

Ngema delivers these with the skill and experience only he can master, especially so because he is a cultural insider.

But this is a story that is simply too long to cover in an hour and 20 minutes.

Ngema’s chosen tale starts around the late 1700s and stretches to the present.

The impression created is of a lot of historical data and details being packed into the work, making it very wordy.

This crowding of the verbal is relieved by the minimalistic set designed by Sarah Roberts.

It allows the audience to focus on the guitar-toting Matshitshi and the narrator moving around with bare torsos.

The two go about channelling different characters as they recall pivotal moments in the story.

In the end, it is how we take ownership of the story of the Zulu, either by asking how we fit into the story or vicariously reliving the great valorous battles through Ngema as he breaks into song, chant and laughter.

There are some narrative moments that could do with some editing, but overall Ngema deserves applause for this comeback role as an actor since Woza Albert 27 years ago.

»?The Zulu tours to Gauteng for a season at the Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria from August 29 to September 15 and then The Market theatre from September 18 to October 26

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