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NALEDI (article first published : 2007-12-16; last edited : [an error occurred while processing this directive])

“It’s a work in progress,” says director Jerry Pooe about his latest venture, Naledi, which had a brief showing in the Playhouse Opera this week. The gospel musical features his Eager Artists company and, while there are some familiar faces still in the line-up, there are certainly a lot of new ones.

One thing about the production is that it is rock-solid musically. The voices are strong, harmonies are good and the live band provides good accompaniment rather than overshadowing the performers, as is too often the case. Music Director Mthunzi Namba is to be congratulated. One of the most powerful songs was Reach Out and Touch led by Jabu Hlongwane which virtually had the audience on its feet.

The story is a simple one told from the viewpoint of a young man called Themba, nicely played by Xolani Zibani. His parents have both died of AIDS and his grandmother tells him to leave the village and head for the city to earn money. The village priest and his assistant (Nhlanhla Gcabashe and Zanele Zulu) lead the villagers in a poignant send-off. Once he hits the unfamiliar world of the city, he is drawn to crime and eventually ends up in prison. He is luckier than most –three angels have been sent to show him the error of his ways and they demonstrate God’s love for humankind in a series of early Biblical stories.

The choreography by Xolani Zibani and Jabulani Mfeka was effective and one of the dancers who impressed me was Zandile Ngobese with a very focused performance. Maye Mbhele garnered much amusement from the crowd in one of his sequences.

I’m not sure whether the storyline was choreography or direction-driven, but the main problem with this production is its illogical format. Or rather, moving from a style based on religion (Christ’s last days) to a contemporary one (Father Christmas). It is a real quantum leap from the crucifixion back to the Nativity and then on to Father Christmases happily dancing through gospel numbers and ending up singing carols. I have no problem with putting them all in a production but you have to guide the audience through this process a bit more gently. Otherwise they tend to feel as if they are changing planes mid-flight rather than going from country to country.

The set is attractive and Dylan Heaton’s lighting design is impressive.

However, there is a sight-line problem with a structure representing the bars of a prison standing downstage centre for a long period which effectively obstructed a clear view of the action further back on the stage. These scenes were intended to be seen from the prisoner’s viewpoint but the structure would have been better utilised for a short time and then raised higher, out of the eye-line of most of the audience, and the cell bars produced by lighting effects. This would also have given a more dreamy aspect.

Performances to be noted are Xolani Simelane as the Gangster with Themba Mabaso as his sidekick. The three angels were played by Sphindile Myeni, S’thandwa Nzuza and Slindile Ndlovu, the latter singing a very uplifting gospel number, while Musawenkosi Shabalala was a dignified Pontius Pilate. Eager Artists stalwart Xolani Henema was a noble Christ figure but Elizabeth Kaskie as Themba’s grandmother was the undeniable star of the show!

There are some very moving scenes in Naledi and, as always, the Eager Artist performers are good at ensemble work. I look forward to seeing this production once some of the rough edges have been smoothened off. – Caroline Smart




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