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WORKING CLASS HERO (article first published : 2001-08-29)

The original script for Kessie Govender’s Working Class Hero is covered with damp stains and looks fairly aged – not because it was discovered in some tumbledown building but because at the time when it was first performed, it was protest theatre at its most incisive. Evidence of its true existence had to be hidden to secure its survival.

In 1975, when it was first written, the Security Branch were hot on the heels of Kessie considering him an undesirable activist. When it was staged in 1976 by the Stable Theatre Company, the show managed to run for a three-week season before being shut down by the security police. There were in fact two versions of the script – one that was printed for presentation purposes to the authorities - and the other, the real one, that was lodged as dialogue into the cast’s memories. According to Kessie, he kept the real version safe by burying it in a tin in his mother’s garden hence its rather disreputable appearance today.

Now re-staged and presented by The Playhouse Company, the provocative Working Class Hero presents issues which Kessie believes are as relevant today as they were in the original version. “As long as you have power you can afford to be racist,” he says. “Has anything changed significantly in terms of race relations between South Africans of different communities in this power-driven society? What we are viewing now is apartheid in reverse with the politicians asserting their own form of – well, call it anything you like but it’s still racism.”

Working Class Hero is set in 1976 and Kessie was tempted to include the Soweto uprising that happened at the time but decided to remain focused on exploring the tensions between black, white and Indian people. While the issues may not have changed, other aspects of life in South Africa certainly have – the price of cigarettes then was 37 cents and Ijuba was 10c!

This is the first production in the recently refurbished Little Theatre in the Playhouse, always a nice space to work in as it offers an intimate atmosphere. On entering, audiences could be forgiven in thinking the alterations are still in process – there are bricks everywhere, door and window frames lie propped up against the walls and the place looks like a building site which is exactly what it’s meant to be.

The story is about a bricklayer’s labourer called Frank, the “professional hustler”, an employee guaranteed to drive any foreman to distraction. Constantly being sent on errands to the T-Room by his superiors, he takes full advantage of his temporary freedom and disappears for ages. Going about his work with a cheerful tune, blithely ignoring instructions, he clatters bricks out of wheelbarrows, mixes dagha (building mortar) when he feels like it and regularly chats up the female passers-by. He has an enquiring mind and many ambitions, vowing that he will “get it that one for me” whether it be an attractive woman or a spokesman to get him out of trouble if he falls foul of the dompas authorities.

Speaking a mixture of fanagalo, pigeon English and Zulu, Kessie Govender is excellent in the role that he created. Audiences are reminded of the essence of a fine actor, a talent that has not achieved its full potential on the theatre scene of today.

There are two other members of the original cast. Rajesh Maharaj, deftly portraying the volatile and irritable bricklayer Siva, and Gavin Goveia who is suitably bullying in his original role as the inspector.

Holding their own with this formidable trio are Thirugesan Govender as the much put-upon charge hand and Santhiran Moonsamy as the young student (originally played by Rajesh Maharaj) whose sympathy for Frank doesn’t extend to total commitment.

This production is worth seeing – not only for its intrinsic dramatic quality but also for the opportunity of seeing a piece of classic South African protest theatre.

The show runs until September 9 in tandem with the World Conference Against Racism. Performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 19h30 with Saturday matinees at 14h00 and Sunday shows at 18h00. Tickets R35 (R12,50 for schools - 10% discount available for block bookings - phone 369-9444). Booking at TicketWeb.




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