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

THE CHILLI BOY (article first published : 2004-03-24)

The time is 1974, the place a poor Indian household in Umkomaas. An ageing toothless granny discovers a snake. Knowing that other family members will destroy it and, believing it to be the spirit of her late husband, she gathers it up and takes it outside. There, she lays it gently underneath a mango tree where, she admonishes it, it belongs.

Matthew Ribnick gives us a beautiful and accurate portrayal of this arthritic and endearing character in his one-man show, The Chilli Boy directed by Geraldine Naidoo, which has just opened at the Catalina Theatre. A thought-provoking and extremely witty new South African play, it has been a smash-hit at many arts festivals countrywide.

After listening to the granny’s description of her drunken son and sickly grandson, also enacted by Matthew, the audience is then transported forward in time to Boksburg and the home of Troy, a 27 year-old with all the makings of a full-blown gangster.

Both the pride and despair of his garrulous long-suffering mother, he is an angry, prejudiced and misguided young man mixed up with the wrong crowd. Boastful of his breaking-and-entering prowess – although he hastens to tell us that they only steal meat because it’s expensive and also keeps the guard dogs at bay! – he has one hang-up. He can be attacked anywhere on his body but nobody must touch his face.

Of course, somebody does – a thug of note, who knocks him out. The reason? Troy has begun to act strangely: speaking in an Indian accent, taking on the physique of an elderly woman with strong maternal instincts, and wearing saris. The neighbourhood is talking. Mind you, they’re also buying the delicious curries and Indian delicacies that he/she is making!

What has happened is that the Indian granny has been reincarnated into Troy’s body and for the first time in Troy’s life, he is earning an honest living! Her influence is also to have a strong effect on Troy’s future.

This is the fascinating structure of The Chilli Boy which is bound to find favour in Durban with our strong links to India, its cuisine and cultures. The script is full of beautiful gems – like granny’s awe at her reincarnated skin tone “So fair, I’m got!”, and Troy’s mother’s yelled instruction to her unseen constipation-prone daughter “You just sit there and … RELAX!” as well as her desire to send all the male members of her family out to learn to be car guards “Make it a career day!”

With his piercing gaze, expressive hands and loose-limbed body, Matthew Ribnick is master of all his cleanly-drawn characters. He’s also pretty hot at pleating and winding a sari! My only niggle is that the story gets a little too drawn-out and we occasionally lose the plot as it winds its way to its feel-good conclusion. However, Matthew holds it all together with ease and his interpretation of Troy’s woollen-capped brightly smiling vulnerable side-kick is utterly adorable.

Don’t miss The Chilli Boy. It runs at Catalina Theatre on Wilson’s Wharf until April 11 at 20h00 (Sundays at 18h00). More information or bookings on 031 305 6889. – Caroline Smart




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