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IPI NTOMBI (article first published : 2005-05-29)

“It’s been a challenge” said director Jerry Pooe at tonight’s opening of Bertha Egnos and Gail Lakier’s acclaimed musical, Ipi Ntombi presented by the Department of Drama Studies of the Durban Institute of Technology (DIT).

Quite frankly, the sheer task of getting about 70 students on stage performing those pulsating and highly energetic dances would be considered a ground-breaking challenge in itself. Jerry has taken a further quantum leap in producing a high octane and lively show which is a credit to himself, his cast and musicians as well as to the Department itself.

In the original version of Ipi Ntombi (Where are the Girls?), the two main characters of Prince (Cebo “Sqashi” Khumalo) and Nadia (Gugu Mwandla) are only referred to in the now much-loved and familiar songs. In his production, Jerry has used these characters in a dramatic context to drive the story.

Prince and Nadia come from a rural background. They fall in love but Prince must go to Johannesburg to earn money to alleviate the poverty in his father’s kingdom. In Egoli, he finds himself in a completely alien environment. Unlike at home, here the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Venda people do not intermingle, there are pickpockets as well as ladies with wandering hands, and he can’t handle the footwork of the dances! To his unsophisticated eyes, this is a frightening and nerve-wracking place. Even at the church meeting– a highlight of the show – where devotees throw themselves into a religious frenzy, there’s someone after his wallet.

There are memorable characters. Nkululeko Simamane is Prince’s amiable friend who marries the voluptuous and sassy Mama Thembu, played by Ntombifuthi Mkhasibe. Siyabonga Ntombela is a suitably sleazy pickpocket, Sithembiso Blose a fervent priest and Zama Magubane a zealous church lady.

Siyabonga “Rajah” Cele is a compassionate friend, Nontobeko Mbatha a delight as the disgruntled grandmother and Samukelisiwe Hlope turns her small role of feeding chickens into a charming cameo. There is some exciting stick fighting and Aphelele Mbiko, Mpho Motsie and Nomathamsanga Sinqe handle a complicated tongue twister in Xhosa with aplomb. Whenever they get a chance to catch their breath between the dance sequences, S’dumo Mtshali and Bhekani Biyela are compelling as the narrators while Gugu Mwandla is an endearing and loyal Nadia.

The honours lay fairly and squarely with Cebo Khumalo who puts in a rock-solid, honest and riveting performance as Prince. Watch this young man – I predict he has a successful future ahead of him. He is in turn vigorous as a proud warrior, animated in a stick fight, uncomfortable in a city environment and romantic with his young lover. His grief when his friend dies in the mine disaster is tangible and very moving.

Looking back over the past drama productions presented by the Department, such as Oedipus Rex, The Chalk Circle and Our Town, it was exhilarating to see many of the actors and actresses I have seen in dramatic roles proving that they have major dance skills, launching into indlamu, gumboot and pantsula numbers with much disciplined gusto.

The cast explodes onto the stage from the first number. The only thing stopping their full vocal impact reaching the audience is the fact that the ten musicians, placed in the auditorium because of the restrictions of the Courtyard stage, effectively overpower the cast on several occasions.

My advice to audiences seeing the show? When the stage is busy, take your eyes off the principal performers and take note of what is happening on the periphery. There are beautiful and genuine little cameos coming from those in the crowd. My congratulations to one and all for an excellent and enjoyable show – especially the musicians and the extensive line-up of choreographers.

Ipi Ntombi runs in the DIT’s Courtyard Theatre in Mansfield Road until June 4. There is secure parking through the boom gate opposite the theatre. Performances at 19h00 (Sunday matinees at 14h00). Booking at Computicket. For more information and schools performances contact Pam between 08h00 and 13h00 (weekdays) on 031 204 2194. – Caroline Smart




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