National Arts Festival 2016: Nyanga

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Ayanda (Tiisetso Mashifane) being hypnotised by the preacher (Sisesakhe Ntlabezo). Photo: Thato Tsotetsi / Artsvark
Ayanda (Tiisetso Mashifane) being hypnotised by the preacher (Sisesakhe Ntlabezo). Photo: Thato Tsotetsi / Artsvark

The fictional village of Nyanga is troubled. At the core of the interweaving storylines is the inescapable fact that these people are in need of healing. It is fitting then, that the play reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is titled Nyanga, which is Xhosa for healer.

With thatch set in a semi-circle around a table and chairs, the opening scene sets the tone. It is hauntingly dark and Ayanda, the protagonist, is sprawled on the table covered in a blanket while the unlikely antagonist Joseph sits topless watching her rise and stretch. A telling and chilling song is sung in the background with the words “I love you, but your love is heavy” in a mix of Sesotho and Xhosa.

I later forgave myself for assuming this to be a story of unrequited love because the opening line sees Joseph telling Ayanda to get dressed when she tries to seduce him. Enter the would be preacher characterised by dodgy knowledge of Biblical scripture and barely concealed material agenda, the pace quickens and the many dimensions start piling up.

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We find out that Joseph has feelings of guilt over deceiving his wife, that the community is suspicious of Ayanda’s grandmother later accusing her of witchcraft and that at the centre of all of this is a complex love triangle involving a barren woman, the elderly that feel under threat and a largely impressionable youth.

Joseph and his wife sharing an intimate moment. Photo: Thato Tsotetsi / Artsvark
Joseph and his wife sharing an intimate moment. Photo: Thato Tsotetsi / Artsvark

It takes a while before all the pieces start falling into place leading up to the climax. Things take a turn for the worst when Ayanda fails to defend her grandmother against the witchcraft accusations with the preacher leading the mob. It is the powerful line “You don’t know what love is, Ayanda! You failed to defend your grandmother!” that you almost understand Joseph’s conflicting convictions. There is an unexpected plot twist that will leave your jaw on the floor.

As a whole, Nyanga explores themes of an inherent belief in otherness, the dangers of group think and how the misrepresentation of faith may have adverse effects. Above all these is the tragedy of betrayal.

If you can get past the fact that the actors fleet between three roles each at a time and the absence of a single storyline that runs through, Nyanga has the makings of a powerful piece of theatre. It is worth noting that the portrayal of the grandmother carries most of the acting and that the singing is pleasant to behold. Although the dialogue could be stronger the piece is worth watching.

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