Life in the gold mines

2008-04-22 00:00

MUSICAL theatre on a big scale comes to the city in May when Sobantu Performing Arts present Shosholoza, a brand new musical dealing with life in the gold mines. A cast of 32 will take to the stage, under the direction of John Malusi Ledwaba, one of South Africa’s theatre veterans and a former Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner. He also wrote the piece.

The play is set on a fictitious mine near Johannesburg and deals with the plight of mineworkers faced with the HIV/Aids epidemic, dangerous working conditions and the introduction of women mineworkers, which happened in 2001. The musical director is Mthandeni Mvelase, who worked on Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina, and the choreographer is another theatre veteran, Brian Mazibuko, who also plays the male lead.

The plot follows the life of a newly recruited mineworker from rural KwaZulu-Natal. He gets so mesmerised by both the good times and the tough life down the mines that he ends up forgetting his wife back home — he becomes a stick-fighting champion and falls in love with a woman colleague.

Rehearsals are in full swing at the Winston Churchill Theatre, where I find Ledwaba busy with his choreographer and cast. I ask him how he came to be involved with the Sobantu-based group.

“They invited me — they had been trying to put together a show about the mines, but they felt they needed someone with more experience. So they asked me to write the show,” he said.

Ledwaba’s first job was to head off to the mines to conduct research. He was not allowed to go underground, but he could see footage filmed deep down, and talked to miners about their personal experiences — and particularly about the introduction of women. “I had to find out about the sexism issues, and how they were handled, as well as about the relationships between the women and the men,” he says.

It was not Ledwaba’s first experience of mines and miners — he grew up in Diepkloof, near the mine compound. In 1980 he wrote the two-hander, Egoli: City of Gold. It is of course also not his first experience of musicals — he wrote Jozi Jozi, Street Sisters and Township Boy, which he brought to the Hexagon in 1988, the last time he worked in Pietermaritzburg.

Ledwaba has been involved with Shosholoza since June last year when he was first contacted and began his research. He came to Pietermaritzburg in October to start work with the actors — most of whom are from KwaZulu-Natal. The play will run at the Churchill Theatre for a month, with previews starting on May 5.

It is all action at the theatre, with renovations being undertaken by the muncipality to get the stage and auditorium up to the standard needed for a big production which requires a set to represent life underground as well as on the surface. Ledwaba takes me to see three scenes being rehearsed: the first is the arrival of the women mineworkers, with Durban actress Ntombenhle Sindane leading them. She plays the lead, the girlfriend of Mazibuko’s character, while another Durban actress, Philisiwe Mpofana, plays the wife he has left behind in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

Other scenes show mineworkers protesting their conditions, a Zionist church service and a scene in the Shosholoza squatter camp which carries a strong anti-Aids message.

Nokwazi Shandu, who is working on the marketing aspects for Sobantu Performing Arts, explains that there is a strong “edutainment” component in the play, and proposals have been put to the Department of Education to get as many school children as possible to the play. There are also plans to invite retirement homes and shelters to previews, partly to give them an opportunity to see the play and partly to increase the word-of-mouth publicity for the show.

Shosholoza is a big project, and the backing comes from businessman Mpume Sikhosana, a member of a well-known Sobantu family. He is also a former director general of the Public Service Commission and has a strong interest in the arts.

There will be previews at the Winston Churchill Theatre at 7 pm on May 5, 6 and 7, followed by a full month-long season at the theatre from May 15 to June 15. Booking details to be announced later.

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