An impressive play

2008-05-20 00:00

Shosholoza

Winston Churchill Theatre

For Pietermaritzburg to stage the premiere of a brand new, full-scale theatrical musical is a major event. And to create even more of a local buzz, the whole concept is the brainchild of the Sobantu Performing Arts group who involved veteran writer and director John Ledwaba to give a concrete shape to their dreams.

Bringing Shosholoza to the stage has not been all plain sailing — the process began almost a year ago when Ledwaba was asked to write a musical set on the gold mines of Johannesburg and looking at the plight of migrant mineworkers.

Rehearsals began at the Churchill Theatre last October, but there must have been times when those involved despaired of ever seeing opening night. To finance a project of this size is a huge task, and there have been some difficult moments.

But finally, on Thursday, all that was put behind the production as the curtain went up to reveal an effective set, with scaffolding, walkways and sliding panels representing the mine, both above and below ground. Combined with the music and sharply choreographed dance sequences, this gives a convincing sense of the brutal physicality of mining. There is also a six-piece band, often hidden by the action, but beavering away in the background to produce the live music that is vital to this kind of entertainment.

The plot revolves around Jabulani Makhathini (Brian Mazibuko, who is also the choreographer) who leaves rural KwaZulu-Natal to head for the mines, leaving his wife behind. He arrives in Johannesburg as the mines — a male world of robust interaction and thoughtless sexism — introduce women workers. But as the women become an accepted part of life, Jabulani begins to forget about home, and turns his attention to his co-worker, Mavi (Ntombenhle Sindane).

Shosholoza has to fit a lot into its running time. There are issues of sexism, of the danger and appalling conditions endured by miners, of HIV/Aids and of the plight of women left behind in the rural areas where drought and poverty make life almost unendurable. The story is told through song and dance, with some explanation given by a narrator. Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, there is plenty of action — a great stick fight in the second act which had the audience shouting for more — and humour. But perhaps some of the set pieces — the sangoma and Evangelical church scenes in particular — would be better with some cutting. They were very reminiscent of some of Mbongeni Ngema’s work, and were overlong.

Inevitably in theatre of this genre, characterisation takes second place to spectacle and message. But one of the strengths of Shosholoza is the performance of Philisiwe Mpofana as the rural wife. Absent for most of the first half of the play, in the second act she heads for Johannesburg to find Jabulani and whenever she is on stage, she brings enormous vulnerability and emotion to the part and gives the whole play a heart.

Overall, Shosholoza is a well-drilled and impressive entertainment. As the run progresses, I would like to see some pruning to make it a more manageable length, but it is home-grown entertainment that the city should certainly support.

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