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

GUMBO (article first published : 2007-09-24)

The setting is the dining room of a rundown hotel. Before the lights come up on the stage, a flap folds down from the cabinet structure at the back and on it is a miniature model of an old-fashioned turreted building situated near a lighthouse. The flashing light coming through the darkness and the sounds of waves tells us that we are near the sea.

This is the beginning of Gumbo, an endearing and amusing production presented by the Hip: Khulumakahle and described as “a conspiracy of clowns”. Written by Rob Murray and Floss Adams, it is directed by Tanya Surtees.

Tall and imposing with a powerful voice and impossibly long legs that allow him to vault chairs with ease, Rob Murray appears as the volatile innkeeper. The unscrupulous brute has little compunction in cheating at cards and, in a game with a travelling salesman (Marlon Snyders), he wins the man’s daughter (Liezl de Kock). Lysander Barends is the hapless kitchen assistant who never seems to do anything right, particularly the task of washing dishes!

Both Marlon and Lysander have 70% loss of hearing but this by no means inhibits their dramatic ability, in fact they are the two most highly trained deaf actors in South Africa. Lysander has the larger role Gumbo and I was fascinated to observe his fast delivery and responses with never a cue missed. As both actors are not able to hear either word or music cues, they rely on light changes or visual/bodily cues from their fellow actors. A perfect example of theatre teamwork.

There’s much knockabout comedy, Lysander taking the brunt of it as the “fall guy”, and Rob Murray causes much amusement as he experiments with flamboyant welcoming gestures to a non-existing stream of guests.

As the storyline continues, we learn through Lysander’s signed explanation to the Salesman’s daughter and her vocal interpretation of them that he is the son of the hotel owner but was abused by his father as a child. They play games, they fall in love – a beautiful sequence sensitively performed – she becomes pregnant and they plot to run away across the sea in a boat Lysander has made.

There is no original work written for deaf people – as this is an illogical method, explains Tanya Surtees. The pieces need to be workshopped through signing among the hearing and non-hearing actors“, so everyone’s talking the same language.

I left the performance venue – as I am sure many other audience members did – feeling entertained by an amusing play, uplifted by a perfectly knit cast and humbled by the triumph of determination over disability. – Caroline Smart




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