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MINE GHOSTS (article first published : 2003-03-23)

Jerry Pooe describes his latest Eager Artists production, Mine Ghosts, which has just finished its run in the Playhouse Loft, as a “music and dance extravaganza”. He’s not wrong in that, as these two disciplines make up this story of life in the mines.

An old man (consistently well-played by Eager Artists stalwart Mnatha Vika) refuses to leave a closed down mine. Haunted by memories of the time he spent in the depths of the earth, his frustration gradually builds up to the point where he screams at the ghosts of the dead miners to “wake up and live their lives.” This scenario would normally offer a wealth of ideas but Jerry’s usual attention to dramatic interplay is lacking this time and it’s a pity as it means that highly talented cast members are under-utilised.

The setting is good and atmospheric with plenty of smoke effects. Perched on top of the “mine shaft” is well-known Durban drummer Tixi Nxumalo who contributes considerably to the action.

Moving in and out of the shadows, the old man remembers his younger days in these surroundings, revisiting traditional Zulu dances, gumboot dance sequences and isicathamiya competitions. Indeed, the show reminds us that it was here on the minefields that the music/dance style of isicathamiya was born, going on to become internationally famous through performances by Ladysmith Black Mambazo many years later.

On the mines, migrant workers – many from KZN – found themselves far from wives, families and farms and to curb their homesickness they gathered together to sing amahubo (Zulu hymns). Pretty soon, teams were formed and competition became tough as groups vied for top place in isicathamiya competitions. This tradition still continues today in places like the YMCA in Beatrice Street in Durban on Saturday nights.

This is the first time I have seen isicathamiya play such a strong role in a musical and the Eager Artists company acquitted themselves extremely well in their renderings. Perhaps they should enter the Playhouse National Isicathamiya Competition later in the year! There were nice send up performances of fanatical, ultra-serious or innovative group leaders beautifully played by Wonderboy Gumede, Xolani Henema and Buyani Shangase.

It is undoubtedly Buyani Shangase who carries the production – energetic, ultra-fit (as is the rest of the cast) and impressing in the Zulu dance sequence, he gave a poignant rendering of the young man forced into sodomy by his hostel mates.

After a spirited percussion gumboot dance à la the British group Stomp and the scene where the old man rails at the spirits, the ending is somewhat abrupt and takes the audience by surprise. It could have come to a more dramatic conclusion and I would also suggest a reworking of certain scenes to explore ideas further. The genre of isicathamiya is unfamiliar to many people who do not understand the strong discipline involved – this manifests itself in close harmonies, hand and foot movements and impeccably neat clothing. Allowing the audience to see the process of rehearsal whereby the end result of top performance is achieved would be an interesting experience.

Jerry Pooe is one of South Africa’s most innovative directors and no doubt he will hone this piece further as it progresses into the future. – Caroline Smart




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