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AFRICAN QUEEN (article first published : 2006-12-11)

I approached African Queen in the Playhouse Drama with a keen sense of anticipation as I have known choreographer and director Bheki Mbili for many years and have watched his progress with interest from his early days in township community dance.

Admittedly I was at a preview which started an unforgivable 35 minutes late, but I have to say that I left with a feeling of disappointment. While African Queen is attractively presented, the band is good and the cast is talented, spirited and committed, I didn’t see Bheki Mbili present his own style of presentation.

What I did see what a kind of Mbongeni Ngema clone with the now done-to-death Sarafina choreography which needs to be performed with Ngema‘s absolute rigid discipline otherwise it doesn’t have the required impact. There is also a danger that fixed smiles can become grimaces.

My interest was caught in the early stages when the narrator indicated that the African Queen would pay tribute to the women who made a major contribution to the struggle for freedom and democracy. As she went on to name icons such as Lillian Ngoyi, Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Nyemba, Helen Joseph, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Florence Mkhize, Victoria Mxhenge and Fatima Meer, I fully expected the production to pursue the thought that each of these redoubtable women was an “African Queen” in herself.

However, this was not to be. This – and other good ideas that had the potential to take the production in a different and new direction - came and went and weren’t pursued. There was no cohesive thread through the show which took the stereotypical format of song and an occasional dance interlinked with narration. Issues such as women abuse and rape were presented – all highly worthy of being highlighted but not, I believe, on this platform. A young actress gave a very poignant and believable performance as a rape victim but where was the follow-up? The victims must speak and society must listen and it is up to those of us in the arts to provide the way forward and not dwell in the past. We want solutions not recriminations.

I also had a problem with the staging – two high blocks of stairs made up the set with the band seated on rostra behind. Most of the action was static with the singers standing on the stairs when they could have been more effectively arranged, seated on the stairs or standing beside them to make a different picture. The stairs are painted white which makes them very intrusive and the cast at certain stages wear white socks and takkies. This provided the optical illusion that their legs had been cut off at the ankles!

I would suggest that Bheki Mbili reworks this piece and cuts it down to an hour without interval, introduces a narration that weaves a stronger link to the title and cuts down on some of the songs. Then I believe it will have a much stronger impact.

African Queen runs in the Playhouse Loft from December 7 to 17 with performances at 14h30 and 19h00. Tickets are R50 and R40. Book at Playhouse Box Office or Computicket. – Caroline Smart




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