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MY VOICE, MY LIFE (article first published : 2003-05-14)

Singer and performer Patti Nokwe is widely considered as one of Durban’s strongest influences on theatre, having guided and trained an impressive number of talented youngsters to professional excellence. Among them was Jerry Pooe who now runs the successful and extremely pro-active Eager Artists theatre company which takes productions to the United States on a regular basis.

To mark Eager Artists’ 10th anniversary, Jerry decided that a fitting celebration would be to revisit My Voice, My Life which charts the life of Patti Nokwe from birth to her marriage to another Durban theatre icon, actor Alfred Nokwe. Between them, they produced two sons and two daughters, the latter having also made their mark on the South African theatre scene. A member of Mango Groove, Marilyn currently operates two rehearsal rooms in her Johannesburg home where major groups rehearse and Tu is an acclaimed singer in her own right. Not to be outdone, grandaughter Ayanda Nhlangothi reached the final ten of Pop Idols and is now being groomed as a television presenter.

My Voice, My Life was first presented as Singing the Times. Devised by Patti and Tu who appeared with Marilyn, it was scripted and directed by Barney Simon and performed at the Market Theatre in 1992 and later in Switzerland. In 2000, Jerry Pooe re-directed the piece to take to Buffalo in New York and the show then included the late David Manqele on drums.

Some 13 years on since its inception, the production is well-suited for the Catalina Theatre where it has a short season. This time it features drummer Tiki Nxumalo and Eager Artists members Buyani Shangase, Mihla Magagula and Gcina Vilakazi.

Told through narrative and song, it’s a gentle, pleasing and meandering tale. It looks at a charmed childhood in the Emushini rural area, climbing trees, imitating birds … and singing. All too soon, Patti’s mother dies and she is sent to Durban to live with relatives who need an extra hand. The Durban dream – “bread and butter, sweets, curry and meat every day!” – turns into a nightmare. She is treated badly and expected to sell vetkoek from early morning at compounds and bars. But the 12-year old’s spirit is strong and her desire to sing undiminished.

As all success stories go, into this scenario comes a mentor – an opera singer by the name of Madame Davia who immediately recognises the young Patti’s talent and offers to teach her. Patti remembers that she used to arrive at lessons late and “smelling of sweat, meat, vetkoek and tears”. In reminiscence, she sings a credible and accurate rendering of the aria O, mio babbino caro.

Although the setting doesn’t allow sufficient focus to be placed on Patti and she would be better situated on the side of the stage, she is ably supported by the rest of the cast. Mihla Magagula is a beautiful actress and her account of the death of Patti’s mother was extremely moving. Buyani Shangase always impresses and he plays his many parts equally well. Gcina Vilakazi has a good flair for comedy and Tiki Nxumalo’s proficiency on the drums is as good as ever.

My Voice My Life runs at the Catalina Theatre until May 25. Performances Tuesday to Sunday evenings at 20h00. Early booking is advised. Contact Glenda at the Catalina Theatre on 031 305 6889. – Caroline Smart




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