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THE ZULU (article first published : 2000-12-12)

The Battle of Isandlwana, January 21, 1879. The greatest defeat Britain suffered in her colonial history. Or an epic Zulu victory. Whichever way you look at it, this battle fought on the lonely rocky hill in north-eastern KZN was a decisive turning point in South African history. Brave men lost their lives: British soldiers drawn from the poorest levels of society and lured by the promise of wages; colonial volunteers and the Natal Native Contingent operating under orders, and members of the Zulu regiments fiercely defending their land, homes and families.

Mbongeni Ngema has chosen to base his new production, The Zulu on the events that led up to and included the Battle of Isandlwana. Coming from a long-established family directly involved in the epic Zulu battles fought in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, he has drawn on memories of his childhood. As a small boy seated in his great grandmother’s hut among the heavy smoke from her fire, he would listen to her legendary stories. These often featured her warrior husband Mbokodebomvu or her father-in-law, another great warrior Halabane, who was one of the leaders of the iNgobamakhosi, King Cetshwayo’s favourite regiment.

The cast of The Zulu features many familiar faces who have appeared in Mbongeni’s previous productions, such as Asinamali, Sarafina, Magic at 4am and Mama.

There’s the ever-radiant and dazzling Leleti Khumalo-Ngema, Mbongeni’s wife and greatest asset, who has a magnetic and powerful stage presence. She plays Paulina Nomguqo Dlamini who has been summoned from the dead by the Divine Healer, the diminutive powerhouse of Seipati Sothoane, to help call back the past and remind the Zulu people of this major event in their history.

Bheki Mqadi is always highly entertaining and focused - he brings much humour to the part of the geriatric Chief Sihayo ka Xongo Ngobese. Dramatic talent obviously runs in the Ngema family as can be seen in the performance by Bhoyi Ngema (Mbongeni’s brother) as a proud and warlike King Cetshwayo. Legend has it that he was the son of King Shaka. Tall and always imposing with her powerful voice and stage personality, Velephi Mnisi is a commanding Usidwaba and Sandile Menze is memorable in an amusing parody of John Shepstone.

I remember Brian Bongani Mazibuko’s excellent performance in Bergville Stories and he’s just as impressive as the highly energetic narrator Simion Khambule. Supporting roles are well handled by Sandile Khumalo, Mfuniseni Zikode, Bongani Shange and Magwegwe Ntshingila.

The music has been written by Mbongeni Ngema with additional songs by Matshitshi’anolwazi Ngema who features prominently in the show. The fine 11-piece band is placed above the stage and the sax, trumpet and guitar players provide their own choreography! There are three strong lead singers in Lindiwe Mkhize and Phindile Mkhize, who handled a rousing gospel number, and Nompumelelo Sikhakhane.

Sarah Roberts’ attractive set design which incorporates a beadwork motif has two round huts set front of stage. Mannie Manim and Richard Parker have created some highly dramatic lighting effects.

The Zulu! premiered in Wiesbaden, Germany, before moving to Austria and Denmark. It also received critical acclaim in Gauteng. The show is energetic, colourful and fast-moving. It features the type of highly disciplined and talented cast we have come to expect from Mbongeni Ngema’s Committed Artist productions.

For those interested in military history, it will offer “the other side of the coin” to that presented in the history books of the “old” South Africa. For the uninitiated, it’s a fervent and vital history lesson told in song and dance.

Presented by the Playhouse Company and Portnet, The Zulu runs until December 31 in the Playhouse Opera. Tickets R35 at TicketWeb outlets or at www.ticketweb.co.za or call Dial-A-Seat on (031) 369-9444.




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