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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

1949 (article first published : 2002-05-3; last edited : 2008-09-7)

Running in the Playhouse Drama is Ronnie Govender’s play 1949 featuring Jailoshini Naidoo. This is the fourth time I have seen this impressive series of short stories – I saw it in Grahamstown in 1996 when it was first performed with Charles Pillai and later in Durban when he repeated his role after the National Arts Festival and then again with Leeandra Reddy.

The production is made up of four stories and set in the study of an academic who is doing research for her BA Hons Degree. The process of sifting through old papers, books, photographs and reports generates memories about the old days in Cato Manor.

What makes Cato Manor such an important area in the history of Durban … and South Africa as a whole?

Ronnie Govender’s programme notes explain: “Cato Manor was the first and largest district to be hit by the Group Areas Act, the natural forerunner of the law that pegged Cato Manor boundaries and prevented Indians from encroaching on to the Berea. 180,000 Cato Manor residents, most of whom, unlike residents of District Six and Sophiatown, owned their own homes and properties were kicked out in 1958 to make way for white settlement.

“Only a few were landlords. The majority were poor, working class Indians, who lived in harmony with the African dispossessed who had settled largely on Indian owned land in order to be close to their work-places over the ridge in industrial Durban.”

From this area came such household names as Billy Peter, Soobiah and RD Naidu, Jeff Hadebe, Jacob Zuma, George Sewpersadh and Rabbi Bughwandeen as well as respected television and stage actor Alfred Nokwe.

Ronnie Govender has rightfully won a coveted Commonwealth Writer's Award and a medal from the English Academy of SA for the excellence of his writing. He draws his characters and situations with a clear insight injecting into them much humour and vitality. In portraying at least 20 characters, Jailoshini Naidoo does justice to this revival of Ronnie’s acclaimed work. She moves comfortably with accurate vocal characteristics and changing body language from one role to another, taking on various parts such as a small boy, doddering ancient, sycophantic newsreader, drunken chauvinist, coy adulteress or a patronising socialite.

I was a little disappointed to see the use of a microphone in a venue which has superb acoustics – the Playhouse Drama was designed as a theatre, after all – and Jailoshini does have a tendency to become a little ponderous and repeats a clutching hand movement which can become irritating. But these niggles aside, this is a play that should be seen by one and all for its dramatic as well as its historical content.

Supported by The Umkhumbane Institute Trust, 1949 is based on the book At the Edge and other Cato Manor Stories. A prescribed setwork for KZN matriculants for 2002, it runs until May 19. Book at Computicket or The Playhouse Box office on 031 369-9444 – Caroline Smart




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