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GRAHAMSTOWN - DRAMA (article first published : 1999-07-7)

The Stick is a drama production presented by the North West Arts Drama Co on the 1999 Standard Bank National Arts Festival. Directed by Aubrey Sekhabi with featured artists Peter Mashigo and Siyabonga Thwala, it is the story through poetry, music and dance of Mokhethwa who has to undertake a journey. The journey, once travelled by his sires, is essential in order to retrieve a magic stick that will bring renaissance to his people.

The body of a man (Siyabonga Thwala) lies prone in a single spotlight. There is a drum beside him, he raises his head and crawls towards it. Before he gets erect, he picks up the drum and tentatively tries it out, gradually increasing his proficiency until he’s drumming up a frenzy. He begins to make sounds – like the first man on earth, perhaps? There is a flash of lighting and he’s on his back , gibbering and twitching. Out of the smoke comes a sangoma (S’lindile Notangala) who informs him that he is the one chosen to set things right for his people who have lost their sense of identity. She tells him: “You must go to the mountain and retrieve a magic stick but before you do this, you must get under the skin of your people.”

Under the controlled narration of Peter Mashigo, what follows is a fast-moving encapsulated history of South Africa from the Khoisan people through to the battle of Blood River and on to apartheid (with DF Malan portrayed as a puppet announcing the Group Areas Act), Sharpeville and the Soweto uprising. The inevitable gumboot sequence heralds the early mining days and the beginning of the break-up of the black family unit when wives waited anxiously back in the rural areas for husbands who went to the mine but often never returned. The miners, disenchanted, found their pride wouldn’t allow them to return home without the riches they had promised their families and so they took up with other women, eventually remaining on The Reef.

Mandela’s release and the 1994 elections as well as the happenings of the last four years bring the story up to date. An impressive and moving sequence sees S’lindile Notangala appearing as several characters questioning the new democracy. “Mandela, are you the elixir the people are waiting for? Have the people exaggerated your power?” she asks as a woman, an old man or an angry and impatient youth.

Just when you thought everyone had forgotten about the stick Mokhethwa was supposed to be looking for - I was beginning to wonder whether the show should have been retitled What Happened to the Stick?/i> - the search is back on. Enter the highly imposing and extremely focused Oupa Sekgobela as the caretaker of the magic stick and the production moves to its intensive and thought-provoking ending.

There are strong and committed performances all round and the dancing is of a highest standard. However, Aubrey Sekhabi admitted to me that the production needs re-structuring and tightening up and he has plans to rework it. In its new, and hopefully tighter, format The Stick will be a strong and dramatic piece to be reckoned with in the annals of South African theatre.


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