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THE COOLIE ODYSSEY (article first published : 2005-11-27; last edited : 2008-09-7)

Produced by Rajesh Gopie’s Rasa Productions in association with the Playhouse Company with support from the 1860 Pioneers’ Foundation, The Coolie Odyssey is set to make its mark in the annals of South Africa theatre. It represents the important and little-documented dramatic history of indentured workers from India for the sugar plantations in Natal between the years 1860 to 1911.

In writing The Coolie Odyssey, Rajesh was influenced by Vikkram Chandra’s novel Red Earth, Pouring Rain as well as a small excerpt in a record of court complaints in 1907where a sugar mill worker pleaded with the authorities for news of his wife and child. On arrival in South Africa, they were separated as his wife was ill and she was detained at the depot with their child. What eventually transpired was that they were both sent back to India but no-one had told him. A poignant but telling example of the lowly status in which the indentured labourers were held.

The story of the play revolves around the intrusion of a monkey into the backyard of the Naidoo household. It invokes the ire of the Naidoos’ son who shoots it. The family nurse it back to health, afraid that the gods might be displeased, only to find it tapping away on the computer one evening because it has a story to tell. The embodiment of an indentured Indian, its powerful and moving story becomes The Collie Odyssey.

There are moments of pathos, passion, despair, homesickness and confusion but instead of The Collie Odyssey becoming a political rant, it is a told with sensitivity and respect. There is also humour aplenty and this comes mainly from Alistair Dube, Afzal Khan and Santhiran Moonsamy. Putting in strong, passionate and compelling performances as the three main protagonists are Rajesh Gopie, Jailoshini Naidoo and Pranesh Maharaj. Aldo Brincat is highly amusing as the plantation owner and Jayanthi Panchu proves she can handle fiery roles with credibility. A pure delight is young Sankari Nair who possesses a dramatic maturity and versatility beyond her years.

The dramatic process is much enhanced by three musicians – Vishen Kemraj, Manesh Ramjathan and the acclaimed and respected Patrick Ngcobo, the first Zulu to learn and become proficient in Carnatic music.

George Holloway’s masks make a strong contribution and the interaction between the three gods - Ganesh, Yama and Hanuman - is often highly amusing. Guy Sclanders’ animation adds an interesting dimension to the action.

Director Heinrich Reisenhofer has pulled all facets of Rajesh Gopie’s multi-layered script into a skilfully-moulded dramatic and entertaining whole. Glen Olsen’s excellent lighting design is particularly notable and Irek Karamon’s set is workable and versatile.

I would urge you to see this production for its entertainment, historical and educational value.

The Collie Odyssey runs in the Playhouse Drama through December. Tickets R65 (20% discounts for students and pensioners on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays). Book at Computicket or the Playhouse Dial-A-Seat on 031 369 9555. - Caroline Smart




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