Johannesburg - The State Theatre is a strange place. A relic from the height of apartheid (built in 1981), the reminders of those National Party days are evident in some of the venue’s displays. The “Exit” signs alternate with Afrikaans “Uitgang” ones, and the glass cases in the lobby weirdly sport white mannequins wearing African-print fashion. “How hard is it to find black mannequins?” my husband commented as we ogled the odd display. It’s in this strange setting that playwright Mbongeni Ngema’s world-famous struggle musical Sarafina! makes its stage comeback, 30 years after it was first performed at The Market theatre in Joburg.
Now, instead of Leleti Khumalo playing the vibrant and idealistic title character, University of Pretoria drama graduate Noxolo Dlamini has stepped into the role. Having also appeared in the hugely successful Lion King musical, Dlamini’s experience serves her well, and she shone especially, when she took on the character of Nelson Mandela.
The rest of the cast hit the mark too, never missing a beat or a line. They are bawdy, rambunctious, vibrant and fresh-faced – everything you want a youthful cast to be. What strikes one most while watching is how Sarafina! seems to have grown in relevance over the years. It depicts a student revolt reminiscent of the 1976 Soweto riots, when black students protested against Afrikaans as a language of education. Today, students from the #FeesMustFall movement are also fighting for a decent education – one they can afford. The mostly black audience around me responded to the show’s rousing political speeches and struggle songs, proving how very fresh in memory those days still are. A luta continua, after all.
My only criticism of Sarafina! is its length. I fear criticising an established and beloved production like this one, but, at almost three hours long, even the most enthusiastic thespians were squirming in their seats near the end. A bit of trimming would do Sarafina! good. Nevertheless, it remains one of our country’s most iconic musicals that everyone should see.
Ticket information for Sarafina at The State Theatre: