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TALKING SPIRITS & AFRICAN QUEEN (article first published : 2004-10-31)

What a joy to see the Playhouse buzzing again last night – with a dance production in The Drama and two shows in The Loft. It’s a very different-looking Loft, too. The black drapes have been removed and the venue is seen with its original uneven wood panelling befitting its original concept as a space for experimental and exciting new theatre.

My focus was The Loft and Talking Spirits and African Queen, a double bill which represented the second slot in The Playhouse Company's New Stages season this month. (See review of Maluju Zulu! on the Drama and Music pages). Zeph Nzama (Talking Spirits) and Bheki Mbili (African Queen) have been around on the local dance and theatre scene for many years and it is good to see their work being recognised by The Playhouse in the New Stages season.

Both productions deal with the journey South Africa has taken - either from the early days of time or through the 10 years of democracy. Presented by well-disciplined casts in attractive costumes, they were were dramatically lit and accompanied by live bands skilfully hidden behind a dramatic geometrically-patterned scrim.

Talking Spirits, written and directed by Zeph Nzama, deals with the heritage of Africa and the achievements of the continent despite the difficulties brought about by its colonial history. An old man reveals his thoughts focusing on man’s inhumanity to man and exhorting young people to value the quality of life. “A celebration without peace is no celebration”, he intones.

Directed by Bheki Mbili, the exuberant and energetic all-female cast of African Queen pay tribute to African women involved in the struggle for justice and freedom in South Africa. The text was well-written, if a bit sentimental, and the narrator presented the interesting maxim that Robben Island was “the university of heroes”. There was a beautifully played scene depicting a young victim of rape, now diagnosed HIV positive, who cries out desperately: “What is happening to Africa?”

While the audience certainly got their money’s worth from extended dance sequences, my immediate response to the shows was a sense of unfulfillment in that I would dearly like to see both Zeph and Bheki exploring their ideas on a more imaginative level and developing their own styles or choreography. Particularly in the case of Bheki whose production was locked into the now very dated Sarafina format.

Perhaps the Playhouse might consider looking at an advanced level dance workshop? Here choreographers of the standing and impressive potential of Zeph and Bheki could be encouraged to step out of the “safe” and into the “challenging” by interacting with some of our local top choreographers – Boyzie Cekwana, David Gouldie, Sbonakaliso Ndaba and Gregory Maqoma, to name a few. Perhaps a showing of international dance films or documentaries could be included?

The Playhouse also needs to revisit its instructions to audiences prior to curtain-up that the use of cellphones are entirely inappropriate in theatres. Not only do they impact on the cast’s concentration but irritate the rest of the audience!

There is one more performance of the double bill of Talking Spirits and African Queen tomorrow (October 31 at 14h30). Tickets R20 booked through Computicket or Dial-a-Seat on 031 369 9555. – Caroline Smart




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