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AFRICAN MOTHER CHRISTMAS (article first published : 2007-12-20)

Fed up with fake snow, foreign animals (reindeer!) and chubby men with false beards in red and white suits, well-known storyteller Gcina Mhlophe decided that enough was enough. Where was the “African-ness” in Christmas, the folklore of the ancestors, the celebrations rooted in the very soil of the continent?

In her inimitable, energetic and forthright way, she set about finding an “African replacement” for Father Christmas. What could be a complete departure? Well, a Mother Christmas, naturally - and one who was part of the African culture. Hence, African Mother Christmas which opened in the Playhouse Loft this evening with Gcina herself making a welcome appearance in the role of narrator.

Having received the great news that their children Buntu and Thando have passed their exams, Mama and Baba head for Durban to do their shopping. The youngsters’ ever-alert eyes spot a Father Christmas and bombard their parents with questions. They’re not at all happy with the answers and want to know why Father Christmas never comes to their house to drop off presents. Back home, grandmother Gogo is regaled by the children with the unfairness of the situation so Mama enlists the help of a friend and, between them, they concoct the idea of finding a figure from their culture who would embody the same spirit of universal generosity.

Based in KwaZulu-Natal, Gcina hadn’t very far to look for her female Christmas figure. The Valley of a Thousand Hills, it is said, was the home of Nomkhubulwana, the Rainbow Princess. So Gcina found her heroine - a beautiful, wise and Mother Christmas with a generous and warm-hearted nature. The character is gracefully played by Zinhle Gumede, who impressed last year in Lungile – The Most Beautiful Girl in the Land, a stage adaptation of a story from Gcina Mhlophe’s best-selling collection, Stories of Africa.

Well-known actor Bheki Mkhwane plays Baba, with Thami Sikhosana as the fusspot neighbour and Phumelephi Mthombeni as Mama’s friend. Providing much genial amusement as the musician and shop owner’s son respectively are Bonginkosi Henry Kulu and Rory Booth with Nombulelo Khumalo as a delightful Gogo. Snenhlanhla Mkhize and Lungisani Xaba add to the fun and merriment.

The two youngsters - Sandile Innocent Msimango (alternating with Sazi Nzama) as Buntu and Nomfundo Hlongwa (alternating with Azande Mgwaba) as Thando - will capture your heart. However, it is Slindile Nodangala as Mama who steals the show with a beautifully sincere performance.

Providing sensitive and controlled accompaniment, the on-stage band is headed by Barney Bophela on keyboard with Madala Kunene on acoustic guitar as well as Mandla Mgabhi (percussion), Sibusiso Mndaweni (bass guitar) and Jerry Kunene (saxophone).

The costumes are crisp and attractive and I particularly liked Gcina’s outfit in the opening scene. Scene changes are done swiftly, efficiently and in character – all adding to the smooth running of the show. Did I mention that there’s also a seriously large elephant?

African Mother Christmas runs in the Playhouse Loft until December 30. Tickets R45 (R35 for under-12-year-olds). Booking is through Computicket on 083 915 8000 or The Playhouse Company’s box office on 031 369 9540 during office hours. – Caroline Smart




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