Sweetly simple production turns clichéd story trope on its head

Sweetly simple production turns clichéd story trope on its head

SHOW: UHAMBO – THE JOURNEY
CAST: SMAL NDABA, MASIZA MBALI, ANDRIES MBALI, SABELO SEKGOTO,MAHLODI RAKOTSOANE,
DUMASANI MHLANGA
DIRECTORS: PHYLLIS KLOTZ AND SMAL NDABA
VENUE: ARENA, SOUTH AFRICAN STATE THEATRE, PRETORIA, UNTIL SEPTEMBER 25
REVIEWER: PETER FELDMAN

Sibikwa, the visionary arts centre in Benoni, Gauteng, promotes quality arts education and theatre performances aimed at younger audiences. It is spearheaded by theatre stalwarts Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba, who conjure up plays that are meaningful and educational.

The company was established in 1988 during the State of Emergency and tremendous political upheaval. Its aim was to provide the youth with focus and hope.

Now, some 27 years later, the company is as strong as ever and opening the eyes of the youth to South Africa’s heritage through theatre.

‘Uhambo – The Journey’ is a sweet, unsophisticated story about a 14 year-old boy named Mzamo (Masiza Mbali) who lives in a rural area with his granny. His parents are in Johannesburg trying to earn a living.

When granny dies, the naive Masiza undertakes a journey by train to Johannesburg to find his mother and father, a plotline that has been utilised in many forms before. Many of the youngsters arriving in Johannesburg from rural areas looking for a better life often end up on the streets, but young Mzamo’s journey is different. It is filled with wonderment and joy, with lessons to be learnt around each corner.

An authentic little thatched African hut serves as part of the set. In it sits an old man listening to a crackling radio. On the wall are two pictures of Madiba in boxing gear.

This old man is Masiza (Smal Ndaba) and he is listening to a radio which is broadcasting Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech, with Madiba’s distinctive tones beaming forth.

Masiza begins to recount his own journey in the 1950s when Sophiatown pulsed with energy, the shebeens did booming business and the gangster culture dominated life. It is into this pulsating environment that young Masiza found himself. Lost and bewildered at the station, the wide-eyed youngster is befriended by Ma Pinkie (Andries Mbali), a shebeen queen, and thus a whole new world suddenly opens up for the impressionable youngster.

The story is simply told, with few stage props, but the acting from the ensemble is energetic and effective with the all-male cast morphing into different characters. The directors use music and dance – Mzamo plays the penny whistle – to enhance the experience and it enchants in its own simple, direct way.

Younger audiences will find much to gain from this tale which also embraces the terrible mining disaster at Coalbrook, on the West Rand, in 1960. It’s a valuable history lesson portrayed through a blend of music, dance, dialogue and drama.

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