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SENZENJE CHORALE (article first published : 2004-03-27)

Following its successful community outreach competition earlier this year, the Playhouse Company presents the story of South Africa in song in Senzenje. Conceived by Playhouse CEO Prof Caesar Ndlovu, the show includes Amahubo, indlamu (traditional dance) choreographed by the late internationally-renowned Sbusiso Dube assisted by Hamilton Mbatha and Khulekani Shongwe. Most of the songs were composed by respected African classical composers such as Phelelani Mnomiya, L M B Chonco, Thandi Ngqobe and S M M Ntombela and some of the numbers were discovered in a research trip to Appelsbosch, a rural homestead in Zululand.

Close on 30 performers dressed in Lindiwe Buka’s attractively decorated bright costumes make for a talented and well-disciplined group as they sing and dance through this full-on theatrical programme. The sound, however, was a bit erratic and often soloists were inaudible.

The backing line-up of musos is rock solid, comprising some of Durban’s finest jazz performers: Brian Thusi, Jerry Kunene and Philani Ngidi with Mthunzi Namba (musical director), Noluthando Madondo, Dumisani Shange, Kwazi Shange and Mandla Mgabhi.

The biggest problem I have in writing this review lies on what basis to assess the production. Is it a choral work or is it a piece of theatre? It’s titled Senzenje Chorale – a journey of song. The programme notes call it a unique classical African chorale musical but this can be a contradiction in terms. A chorale focuses on music whereas a musical introduces dance and an element of drama.

If it is to be viewed as a chorale, then Senzenje has too much energetic activity taking away from the quality of the music. If a musical, then the conductor’s position on stage level in the main focal position downstage centre is detracting. Even when he is not there himself, the music stand is an irritating obstruction to a clear view of the performers. The podium would be better placed on the lower level which covers the orchestra pit.

Stillness and focus are powerful staging tools and I would have liked to see performers split into smaller groups for certain numbers, maintaining the full impact of their complete ensemble. I would also prefer quieter choreography in other songs and stillness where the music demands. My heart bled for a beautiful quintet and the following trio, singing glorious phrases while in the background the male dancers are selecting picks and miming the hewing of rocks.

Senzenje takes audiences through a journey in time; from a youngster’s happy childhood in a rural area, through the period of the struggle up to post democratic phase and life in cities like Durban. At times, the musical comes very close to morality preaching and political speech. The issues raised – and they are worthy ones - would be better told in a dramatic context, say, through a grandfather to son, tribal elder to the community, or social worker to women's groups.

Scriptwriters and directors Caesar Ndlovu and Jerry Pooe have created a strong and vibrant work with some beautiful music. Chorus masters Sipho Nzimande and Thanduxolo Zulu are to be congratulated on the quality of the singing. Irek Karamon has produced a rural feel with the set, placing the musicians at different levels under a vast landscape of the Drakensberg.

Senzenje contains an interesting mix of musical styles. Strapped to a schedule which went awry because the show started half an hour late, I had to leave before the end but I understand that I missed a great fusion of the classical choral genre and jazz styles.

Senzenje just needs more attention to storyline dramatisation and more imaginative variety in its staging to make it exceptional.

Performances tonight at 19h30 and tomorrow (Sunday) at 15h00. Tickets R40 (R25 students and pensioners). Book at the Playhouse Box Office or Computicket (www.computicket.com or call 083 915 8000). – Caroline Smart




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