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PEOPLE OF HEAVEN (article first published : 1999-05-31)

People of Heaven is an ambitious production with a large cast of a new South African play written by Genbia Hyla and directed by Debbie Lutge. Featuring students of Technikon Natal’s drama and entertainment technology department, it marks a major milestone in the department’s history of productions offered for public audiences.

The play deals with the struggle of three worlds: the sky, the place of shadows and the surface of the earth. God (uMvelingqangi) is angry because one of his subjects (uMpande) has been riding his sacrificial bull. So he banishes him from heaven and organises a hole to be cut in the clouds so that uMpande is lowered to the world below, closely followed by the most beautiful daughter of the heavens (Nsondo) who is sent down to be his mate (Adam and Eve counterparts perhaps?)

In the underworld, we meet uMveli’s arch enemy iNkanyamba and his wondrous cronies which include a beetle, lizard and chameleon. iNkanyamba, (who we discover is the father of uMpande) intends to disassociate mankind with heaven by teaching Nsondo how to birth her child in the earth. From then on, the plot thickens! While the basic story is not that complicated, the action itself becomes such as, according to the programme notes, the play traverses “both Judaeo-Christian philosophy, as well as those dictated by Zulu cultural beliefs”.

Adding to the confusion is the tendency to move in and out of language idioms, from gracious Zulu cultural phraseology and praise-speech to contemporary idiomatic slang and hip-talk. Also, with the strong link to Zulu folklore and theories, many references may be unfamiliar to the general theatre-going public. So, make sure you read the programme notes if you go and see the production. because see it you certainly should. I believe that this play has the potential to find its place on the list of major South African drama works.

While well directed with a disciplined cast, the Technikon production of People of Heaven needs a fair deal of pruning and the pace controlled to allow more use of mood and changes of style. Also, more attention needs to be given to voice production to encourage some of the actors to project rather than shout. And, as more and more performers are working in a language such as English that may not their home language, the problem of incorrect pronunciation needs to be addressed early during training before bad habits are allowed to develop.

Having said all that, there are some strong performances - notably from Edwin Khumalo, as always, as Elenduna, Jabulani Msomi (Villenangi), Phiwayinkosi Ngongoma (uMpande), Momelezi Ntshiba (Inkanyamba), the elegant Thokozani Ndaba (Ixhanthi), and Winile Majozi (sangoma). Morne Botha was a delicious lizard, Monique Hebrard a suitably agitated beetle and Siyabonga Shibe as the stuttering chameleon.

Bryan Hiles looked distinctly uncomfortable as uMvelingqangi, constantly having to refer to himself as a querulous old man when what the audience sees is a perfectly youthful good-looking young man. A wondrous long beard would help! Perhaps because of his discomfort he had a tendency to throw some delightful lines away.

The drama and entertainment technology is fortunate to have choreographer Hugo le Roux as guest lecture for a year. His costume designs were delightful (I heartily envied Elenduna’s magnificent sarong!) as were the ingenious head-dresses. Bangani Makhanya’s set made clever use of the stage area available and he managed to find. two spaces for trapdoors! Special mention must be made of the inventive make-up, particularly that for Ixhanthi and the lizard.

People of Heaven runs in the Courtyard Theatre, Mansfield Road, until June 5 with performances at 19h00 (except June 2). Book at Computicket or by phoning 204-2532.


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