The interview: Omphile Molusi, voice of new struggle theatre

2013-04-14 14:01

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Like the guy he shares a birthday with – William Shakespeare – Omphile Molusi knows people and this is what makes him the voice of new struggle theatre in SA, writes Gayle Edmunds

Omphile Molusi is a romantic.

He doesn’t deny it. Instead, he says, with his charming smile lighting up his face as he spreads his hands in a gesture of acceptance: “As a person, I believe in love. If you have experienced love – even for a moment – you don’t want to let it go.”

According to him, it’s the thing that connects all of us and that which makes people fight so passionately: for freedom, for houses, for electricity, for everything?.?.?.?for those we love.

My first experience of Molusi’s written work was Itsoseng, his one-hander that won the Scotsman Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 2008.

It was performed as part of the National Arts Festival on its main programme last year, and it was quite simply one of the best South African plays I have seen. At the end of it, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place and the audience surged to their feet to give this young man, born in Bodibe and raised in nearby Itsoseng township, both in North West, a standing ovation.

Molusi, though, is no newcomer – he graduated from The Market Theatre Laboratory and has been working in theatre since 2001.

He was the first recipient of the Brett Goldin Royal Shakespeare Company Bursary in 2007. This was fitting not only because he’s a fresh, innovative young voice in theatre, and he deserved it, but because he shares a birthday with the Bard.

He presented Itsoseng while with the Royal Shakespeare Company and there he found his producing partner, Richard Jordan.

“He didn’t even see the play before he produced it,” says Molusi. A friend of Jordan’s saw the play, called Jordan and told him he’d want to produce

it – and he did.

This collaboration with Jordan continues with Cadre, Molusi’s new play, currently on at The Market Theatre.

Cadre is also tough political theatre. One middle-aged white guy said afterwards: “That was militant.”

Molusi nods when told this, and says the reaction to his piece by different audiences is fascinating. One of the reasons he’s sorry it debuted in the US at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (which paid for its development), is that he’d have preferred to fine-tune it on a local audience.

But he’s also philosophical about his work, saying that what he intends the message to be and what people take from it don’t always converge: “It is hard for me to craft a piece so that you get from it what I want you to.”

Cadre is a deeply personal story – not only to Molusi, but to many South Africans. It is inspired by the story of Molusi’s uncle, who was an Azanian People’s Liberation Army soldier who acted as a messenger for the movement and went on to infiltrate the police service in Bophuthatswana, before

ending up in jail.

“I was doing a family tree and my uncle told me his story. Before his story, all I knew about him was that he visited us and that he drank,” says Molusi.

The play has, at its heart, an achingly innocent love story – of a budding love between two teens – which is the thread of hope that weaves its way through this story of two brothers. One brother is an activist killed by a police officer in front of his kid brother, who then enlists, with little understanding of the terrible price his raging need for revenge will exact.

The incurable romantic and eternal optimist in Molusi comes through in his plays as strongly as does his warning.

“I come from a community where we fought passionately for change. But that change is blurry, it is out of focus. The oppression goes on in another format. 1994 wasn’t a destination, it was the beginning for us,” he says, adding: “It’s like telling a child, ‘I will buy you a lollipop when I go to town.’ When you get to town, you see a lollipop, but instead of buying it you buy something for yourself. This breaks a child’s heart.”

This, he adds matter-of-factly, is what turns a society violent: broken promises.

Molusi, who moved to Itsoseng at the age of 13, studied electrical engineering at the Vaal Triangle Technikon because his friends were going there to do that.

“I didn’t want to be stuck in the township,” he says.

While at the technikon, he discovered theatre. “I didn’t open my heart to electrical engineering,” he says earnestly. “Theatre was so fun. It taught me to interact with people.”

Also, he says, it taught him to write in a different way. He always wrote. Raised by a stern grandmother, until he joined his mother and stepfather in Itsoseng in his teens, he was taught not to talk back.

“So, when there were things I didn’t like, I’d write them down.”

He says he writes sad stories because “when I am saddened by something that’s when I see the truth of it”.

Then he tells me the story of how his mother sobbed when he came home to tell her he wasn’t doing electrical engineering any more – he was going into the theatre.

I guess these days his mother smiles about his career choice and how Molusi uses it to give back to his community and tell their stories.

Molusi’s desire to better understand people is at the heart of why he went into the dramatic arts. “In playing people, you come to understand them. If you understand them, then you respect them.

“Behind protests are people. Behind people are their stories.” Molusi says that unless you experience people, you can’t experience politics, adding that he “opens a door” to understanding with a personal story.

He is taking this belief in the transformative power of theatre back to Itsoseng with his work to train creative arts teachers, and he hopes to roll out his programme to all underresourced areas as fast as goodwill and funding will allow.

With his passion, he will succeed.

Here in the iconic Market Theatre, I call Molusi the new voice of struggle theatre. He back-pedals from this label until I convince him it’s true.

He’ll be 32 next week, so he qualifies as a voice of young South Africa.

He is a voice that articulates the frustrations of a generation that should be reaping the benefits of their parents’ sacrifice, but aren’t.

He, like the struggle playwrights before him, holds a mirror up to society. He coaxes us to see each other as people with unique tales to tell and dreams to fulfil. His work forces engagement, which is the first step to real change.

“What we have is precious and if we do not take care of this freedom we will be in trouble,” he says.

Molusi, who is expecting his first child this year, is determined to do what he can to be the change he wants to see for those he loves.

»?Cadre is on at the Laager Theatre at The Market Theatre complex in Newtown until April 21

At the Festival this year

This year, the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown is showcasing a body of work produced under The Market Theatre umbrella as part of the main programme offering. This was announced earlier this week.

Prince Lamla, the winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist award for theatre, will direct a revival of Asinamali. Also, his hugely successful

do-over of Woza Albert! will travel to the festival as will the John Kani-directed version of The Island, which recently ended a well-received run.

Among the new works joining these struggle legends are Omphile Molusi’s brilliant Cadre, as well as a new piece by Mbongeni Ngema entitled The Zulu in which he will also perform, and Gina Shmukler’s The Line.

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