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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

1949 (article first published : 2008-09-3; last edited : 2008-09-7)

Ronnie Govender’s compelling drama 1949 comprises four stories set in Cato Manor before its destruction by the Group Areas Act. The production was invited to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and then to the Edinburgh Festival.

The last time I saw the play was in 2002 when the book it is based on, At the Edge and other Cato Manor Stories, was a prescribed setwork for KZN matriculants that year. The book went on to win the prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best First Book in Africa and it is still a setwork for high schools.

2002 marked the fourth time I had seen the show. The first was at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 1996 when it was first performed with Charles Pillai who later repeated his role in Durban, and then again with Leeandra Reddy. Jailoshini Naidoo took over the role in 2002 and she appears again in the current season.

Fifth time round – I’m beginning to know the text well enough to anticipate the lines! – 1949 has lost none of its humour or strength. Jailoshini has matured considerably as an actress and her performance is riveting in the numerous roles, both male and female, she portrays. Whether it be bright-eyed Sathie who is refusing to go to Tamil school or a desperate mother facing an angry mob, she defines her characters clearly under Ronnie’s skilful direction.

The story is set in the study of an academic who is doing research for her BA Hons Degree. The process of sifting through old papers, books, photographs and reports generates memories about the old days in Cato Manor.

The Incomplete Human Being sees young Sathie employing an ingenious ruse to drop out of Tamil school, reasoning that if Superman doesn’t need the language, he doesn’t! Lala Phanzi is about a village dandy who suddenly finds himself thrown into jail amidst a motley assortment of hardened criminals until the local bouncer arrives and sorts out his problems. Saries, Bangles and Bees is a poignant tale of a sanitation worker whose wife refuses to be subservient and uses her wiles to achieve her own ends. The powerful 1949 finishes the play, a true story of a brave soul who tried to rescue a family about to be set upon by a bloodthirsty mob.

1949 is a valuable piece of theatre – not just for its entertainment value – but for its strong historical content and its portrayal through sensitivity and understanding of Durban’s interactive and multi-faceted Indian community.

As in 2002, I was a little disappointed to see the use of a microphone in this venue. The Playhouse Drama was designed for the spoken word, as opposed to the Opera which was designed for operas and musicals.

1949 runs until September 14. Book at Computicket or The Playhouse Box office on 031 369-9444 – Caroline Smart




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