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SQUAWK (article first published : 2004-12-2)

Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane must be two of South Africa’s most loved and admired performers. It is a sad reflection of the state of the arts in this country, however, that they are more in demand – and higher paid - outside of South Africa than they are here.

Fortunately for Durban audiences, however, the Playhouse Company has wisely secured a slot in the actors’ hectic schedule to present two of their most well-known productions, Squawk and A Boy Called Rubbish, at the Loft over the festive season to celebrate the country’s Decade of Democracy.

The Ellis & Bheki performing partnership goes back to the days when Bheki Mkhwane joined the then Performing Arts Council’s (now the Playhouse Company) Loft Theatre Company, of which Ellis Pearson was already a member. Ellis and Bheki then left the Loft in 1990 to join Nicholas Ellenbogen’s Theatre for Africa and this saw the beginning of what would become a legendary performance duo.

Their first production with Sue Clarence Promotions – a healthy and pro-active partnership that continues to this day – was A Boy Called Rubbish in 1993. As well as Squawk, it is much in demand for school touring programmes and Ellis and Bheki have done at least 1,000 performances to date of each show.

Squawk was originally commissioned as a democracy training programe (voting education) and held its first performance as Amazwi Omoya (the words of the wind) on September 1, 1993, on the steps of the Durban City Hall. It was adapted and then screened on national television in 1994 as part of the Democracy Education Broadcasting Initiative. After further adapation, it moved onto the theatre circuit a year later and this is the show that can be seen at the Loft.

The show starts off with a heightened sense of anticipation as the two actors keep saying ‘They’re coming!” ... “Bayeza!” Ellis plays what looks like the broken-off pedal of a drum kit with a violin bow. They remain alert. Who or what is coming? We slowly find out as the actors mime – hilariously and very accurately – a range of birds from crows, chickens and an ostrich to a peacock, a duck and a hadeda.

The problem is that no-one species in the bird community can live comfortably with the other without quarrelling and here the terminology made for much humour – left wing is against right wing and everyone’s in a flap, for starters! A wise old African Grey who has spent many years in a cage (guess who?) utters words of reason and peace, suggesting a song competition. Here, Ellis was a delight as a stork playing a penny whistle. They both create havoc with whistles and fluttering hands as the weavers and Bheki is a majestic eagle who advises that proper judges be appointed. These, needless to say, come from the audience amid great hilarity.

However, as is the wont of humankind, corruption raises its ugly head and the bird colony is once again in turmoil until the trumpeter hornbill (Ellis on Bheki’s shoulders plus two umbrellas, a yellow plastic bag and a loud-hailer – you need to see this!) reminds them that in order to live peacefully they must listen to each other. A band of percussionists (from the audience) is assembled and through the medium of music, the message is brought home. Listen to the rhythm – ie listen to what’s around you and respond.

Squawk runs from December 2 to 18 in the Playhouse Loft on December 2, 3 and 4 (11h00) and again on December 15, 17 and 18 (11h00) with extra show at 14h00 on December 15 and 18.

Performances of A Boy Called Rubbish take place on December 8, 9, 10 and 11 (11h00). Booking for both shows at Computicket. – Caroline Smart




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