Theatre – Shaka reimaged on stage

2010-07-02 13:09

Shaka Zulu, the musical, recently opened at the State

Theatre in Tshwane. It proposes a contemporary take on the chief architect of

the Zulu nation as we know it... well, perhaps it flirts with the idea.

Though

the music breaks with tradition, the plot and setting remain caught up with

archeologically correct reconstructions of its themes.

Nevertheless,

in an age where the phrase “100% Zulu Boy” carries hard political currency, the

musical could not be timelier. The project is laden with creative perils though.

You have

to wonder just how many creative liberties are available to dramatists when

approaching the historical figure who is the son of Senzangakhona, given how

jealously his sacrosanct memory is guarded by the current throne.

There’s

also the fact of fuzzy historical records that researchers must contend with

when handling the subject. Wits University’s Professor of Anthropology Robert

Thornton says: “We only have folklore and the accounts of early white settlers

to tell us what happened.”

I went to

watch Samson Khumalo, one of the musical’s makers, and his regiment of singing

actors as they went through the script at the Westdene Recreation centre in

Johannesburg.

The

shabby, monolithic centre makes an irony of the glitzy affair being

prepared.

The place

has seen better days. Discharged through its windows is the clamour of the

working cast, aided by a sound system.

Inside,

Khumalo, who is the director and one in a team of three creators that include

Deon Opperman and Sean Else, sits armoured in a blue lumber jacket to fend off

the cold.

He is

aware of the potential public demand for authenticity that his team is set to

face. “There’ll always be people who will criticise,” he says. So they “had to

strive to come up with something more exciting and engaging”.

The score

is the starting place for a musical. That is why they have sought the

compositional skills of one Johan Vorster, who co-founded Mozi Records with Sean

Else. Among other hits, Vorster is the composer of the controversial Afrikaans

pop hit, De La Ray which he penned for Bok van Blerk. He also wrote Steve

Hofmeyer’s My Juliet.

In

theatre, Vorster composed the music for Ons Vir Jou, the musical.

Here, he

manages to inflect ­effeminate vocal overtones into some of the choruses. They

sound odd and out of kilter with Shaka’s general

image – a lean, mean spear-wielding warrior with a vicious machismo spell.

However,

Khumalo vehemently ­declines the creative licence to ­approach the hinterland of

the Shaka debate – his masculinity. It’s

difficult, he says. “The only relationship that Shaka had with a woman was with his mother, Nandi.”

Okay, but

still, how can my Zulu president’s multi-nuptial tendencies be termed “100% Zulu

boy” style if the number one Zulu was not big on women? The question baffles

anthropology professor Thornton too, though he is quick to dismiss any suspicion

about Shaka’s masculinity.

Thornton

proposes that Shaka was “not sexually involved as

he spent most of his time with his impi”.

However,

even Khumalo admits that this was part of the creative challenge when putting

the musical together.

The story

also doesn’t lend itself easily to the traditional format of a musical. “It’s

about blood and war, power and manipulation... and normally ­musicals are

about (romantic) love,” he says.

Further,

Khumalo says that unlike traditional musicals that normally make use of more

than 30 cast members, his is trying to tell the story with only 12 actors. He

counts this as a big part of the experiment.

“If we

succeed maybe people will start to follow,” says the director. He adds: “This

could be ground-breaking.”

But there

are other perils to the ­story. Even casting the lead role had to be revisited.

Khumalo and his mates ­removed Thokozani Nzima who was ­initially meant to play

the lead role.

It is now

manned by Phumi Mncayi who was initially contracted to play Dingaan, Shaka’s half brother. Khumalo is tight-lipped about the

issue.

Khumalo

is apparently not troubled much by the requirement of physical resemblence but

“capturing the personality” of the role. “Just now you’ll be telling me Shaka must be hefty and have a six pack,” he

jokes.

Mncayi,

the new Shaka with a promising potbelly, agrees.

He says what’s important is to be true to the story and “not be worried about

trying to play up to how it has been told ­before”. He says the story is

“mammoth because it’s about heritage, not because it was done well by (the late)

Henry Cele”.

Cele gave

a seminal portrayal of Shaka Zulu in a 1980s

television series that has defined the image of the Zulu king in the public

imagination. But ­Mncayi says he’s not worried about comparisons or detractors.

“Once we’ve done our part, all the complaints will seem like irrelevant wayside

politics.”

Mncayi

insists the new version “is important because it’s about more than just a

spear”.

He adds

that the audiences will get to see that Shaka was

“an ordinary man who was born... and how his anger came about”.

Khumalo

is not concerned about the culture police crying foul. “We are not academics,”

he says.

“Besides,

all we are working from are reported situations about the alleged disputes

between Shaka and his father or that his aunt was

not happy with something.

“So we

have to creatively fill in the gaps with dialogue... and believe me, for a

musical we went very literary.”

His

message is clear “when the lights go out on opening night, give us a chance and

enjoy the story”.



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