Review – The Madonna of Excelsior: Must-see staged sequel to the book

2013-06-28 10:35

The Madonna of Excelsior, a play based on a novel of the same name by Zakes Mda, sets itself the task of exploring the unlived future of Mda’s characters.

Directed by Roel Twijnstra, the play goes in search of the contemporary condition of people Mda’s novel left in the dark days of apartheid reality. The story of Excelsior, a small farming town in the old Orange Free State province, is a tale of how a group of young black women shared relations with powerful white men and bore children, this at a time when interracial coitus, let alone love, was illegal.

Twijnstra’s interpretation of Mda’s story is set at that historical moment when political prisoners like Nelson Mandela and many others were released from prison.

The audience is aptly received into the theatre hall to sound clips of Mandela’s post-prison speeches and interviews.

The euphoria of that historic moment sets the tone and time setting of the narrative. The children of Excelsior, conceived in the illicit relationships that contravened the immorality act, are now in their 20s and they want to know who they are. The existential quest for personal meaning drives them to confront their mothers about the truths of their birth. Old wounds of sexual exploitation, childhood mistakes and a grand scandal are scratched open. Twijnstra uses Popi, played by Diana Maseko, the daughter of Mda’s leading woman, Nikki.

She is of mixed blood and is still plagued by the scandal that once humiliated her parents and their peers. Mda’s Excelsior is conjured on to the stage by the elders recalling their time in the farm among bees, sunflowers and the subject of the immorality act.

The cast breaks into song and comedy and even claws at some pathos to achieve its ends. One of the more poignant nuggets of memory concerns a young Nikki humiliated by her employer. She is suspected of stealing meat at the butchery by Cornelia (Marli van der Bijl) the wife of Stefanus (Nic Beukes), the man who is the father of her love child, Popi.

Twijnstra confronts the audience with an intense enactment of a scene where Nikki is stripped naked in front her colleagues and the butcher’s 12-year-old son. It’s a spectacular shock moment in the play.

But it’s a regrettable cheap trick that does little to advance the worth of the play.

The pitiful condition of Twijnstra’s Madonnas doesn’t need it.

It’s a rare flop in a play that otherwise claws admirably at being imaginative and something close to exciting. It should be seen.

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