The theatre of storytelling

2011-02-05 09:51

The story of two kings ­receiving a prophecy about the imminent birth of a boy just didn’t sound original enough to warrant a trip to The Market Theatre.

Sunjata’s story line sounded ­unsophisticated, more like a “Jim comes to Jozi” type of thing.

I had even more reservations after ­learning that the story was an ­adaptation of a classic West ­African tale, yet a quick glance at the cast didn’t reveal a single West African name.

Add to that, I was witness to what could best be described as a classic example of brilliant ­theatre days earlier.

I just wasn’t prepared to allow myself to come crashing down from such a high by a play with such a strange name as ­Sunjata after watching Sizwe Banzi is Dead.

But in the end, my love for theatre and the curiosity to establish whether my fears would be confirmed meant I did make the trip.

The set of large fishing nets hanging high and casting shadows over the stage, plus an assortment of utensils and percussion items transported me to a quaint fishing village somewhere in West Africa.

But when narrator Conrad Kemp emerged for the opening scene, I wondered if he didn’t perhaps look out of place in a pair of jeans?

Surely the folks in Mali’s fishing villages don’t dress like hippies?

In fact, none of the costumes was traditionally West African.

I expected flowing robes. But credit should be given to director James Ngcobo for transforming what at face value sounds like a bore into a marvellous work of theatrical work full of surprises.

The play leans towards the ­musical, with many scenes ­featuring terrific choreography and music adapted from the griots of West Africa.

Choreographer Gregory Maqoma has done a sterling job, as is ­expected of an artist of his calibre, and the cast ably complement the work done by Ngcobo and ­Maqoma.

The gifted cast of Kemp, Dominique Gumede, Sibulele Gcilitshana, Masasa Mbangeni, Lerato Mvelase and Reshoketswe Sebotsane just about erected a massive tombstone over my fears about this play.

Sebotsane and Mbangeni deliver excellent performances as the kings, Sunjata and Samanguru.

Particularly impressive was ­Sebotsane, though he often drifted into Sepedi, which left me ­wondering if the whole thing shouldn’t have been performed in that language.

Mvelase, dressed in a short silky night dress that reminded me of the bargain stores of Marabastad, dishes out an outstanding perfomance.

Perhaps another career as a songbird is in her future?

Sunjata is a perfect example of the theatricality of African storytelling.

Although the ending is ­predictable, getting there, with song, dance and theatre, keep the listeners captivated to the end.

Many similar stories have probably been told across the continent thousands of times in the past, but this one transformed into a piece of theatre is something ­different because of the artistic talents of both director and cast.

» Sunjata runs at The Market Theatre Complex’s Barney Simon Theatre until March 6. Book at Computicket

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