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ASINAMALI! (article first published : 2004-11-27)

During the mid 1980's a critical rent strike led by community activist Msizi Dube and Pastor Mcebisi Xundu in Lamontville near Durban inspired Mbongeni Ngema to write Asinamali!. This play is now firmly entrenched in the annals of South African theatre and in the time since it was written, it has toured internationally and won numerous international awards as well as a nomination for a Tony Award for Mbongeni Ngema. Asinamali was last seen in Durban in 1996.

Launching the Playhouse Company’s festive season, the production is running in the Playhouse Drama until December 3. It stars original cast members Thami Cele, Bongani Hlophe, Makalo Brains Mofokeng, Bheki Mqadi and Bhoyi Ngema, the latter bearing a strong resemblance to his elder brother, Mbongeni. It was originally planned that Mbongeni would appear in some of the performances but he has since undergone cataract operations and his doctor has advised him against appearing in the current run.

This is sensible advice as Asinamali is a highly physical show and, some 20 years after its inception, it has lost none of its vitality and impressive dramatic energy. The storyline deals with five inmates of Leeuwkop Prison and as the play progresses, they describe the circumstances that brought them to their incarceration. It’s hard to single out any one actor as this is such a well-constructed and presented ensemble piece but individually they all shine.

Thami Cele is always a very compelling performer and a delight to watch. Bheki Mqadi runs away with most of the comedy. Tall and impressive, Makalo Mofokeng brought much emotion to his tale of disruption at his friend’s funeral. Bhoyi Ngema holds it all together with his narrative sections and Bongani Hlophe’s stuttering character was filled with much pathos.

One of the funniest scenes deals with Bheki’s (Bheki Mqadi) courtcase where he is frantically trying to answer questions or put his case forward while being constantly silenced by a frenetic policeman (Bongani Hlophe). Bhoyi Ngema plays the sycophantic interpreter and Thami Cele is a wonderfully crusty judge with Makalo Mofokeng giving a delicious interpretation of the court stenographer, typing away with concentration and not forgetting to pull the carriage return lever at the “ting” at the edge of the page!

There were a few problems tonight with actors talking over the laughs (and you really don’t want to miss any of the dialogue!) and not always getting into the light but these will have ironed themselves out by tomorrow’s performance.

The lighting is excellent. Several scenes are played in a single dramatic spotlight, like the ones where the inmates exchange confidences with a sympathetic sergeant on the other side of the cell door. The setting is minimal, to say the least, with five chairs set in a line and a hanging frame which is used as a window. However, they suffice and anything else would be superfluous – the main focus is on the stories and the performances. Scenes move swiftly and skilfully into each other - in fact, so much happens that it startles you occasionally to be reminded that there are only five people on stage.

At this evening’s launch, Mbongeni Ngema revealed that the play is soon to be made into an international movie, with production due to start in June, 2005, to be released at the end of the year. Therefore, the Playhouse run could be the last time Asinamali is seen on stage. So, if you haven’t seen the play yet, don’t miss it – it’s undeniably part of South African theatre history.

Performance times are: November 26 and 27 at 19h00; November 28 at 15h00; November 30* at 11h00 and December 1 to 3 at 19h00. Tickets R35 (Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday); R45 (Friday and Saturday). *The schools performance on November 30 has a radically discounted ticket price of R10 and can be booked at the Playhouse Box Office. Book now through Computicket or Dial-A-Seat on 031 369 9555. – Caroline Smart




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