National Arts Festival 2016: Oomasisulu

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Thembi Mtshali-Jones performs in the theatre production Oomasisulu at the Box theatre in the Rhodes Drama Department on the 30th of June at the 2016 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. The theatre production was directed by Warona Seane. (Photo: CuePix/Ivan Blazic)
Thembi Mtshali-Jones performs in the theatre production Oomasisulu at the Box theatre in the Rhodes Drama Department on the 30th of June at the 2016 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. The theatre production was directed by Warona Seane. (Photo: CuePix/Ivan Blazic)

I imagine it is quite difficult to try and adapt the memoirs of a revered struggle veteran into a powerful theatre piece while being sensitive to the content. At the end of the day, it is still a human story even though society feels a certain ownership of the individual. Thankfully, Oomasisulu manages this while taking care to treat the human aspects with great sensitivity and without sensationalism.

Adapted from the biographical novel by Elinor Sisulu, this show reflects the cross generational involvement of women in the liberation struggle against Apartheid. On the surface it threatens to be a feminist ideal peddling show, but that is just the thing about feminism, isn’t it? It is meant to be threatening given all it has achieved.

The set opens with the three women sitting in different positions with each representing Albertina at a different time. Thembi Mtshali Jones is set apart as the main narrator from the onset and begins the story from her younger years while sitting on a wheelchair with yarn and knitting needles on her lap.

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It is worth understanding that the show itself is still in its infancy and this is clear in the frequent moments where the veteran actress seems to stumble over her lines. She quickly recovers each time and one gets the sense that were it not for the enchanting performances by the younger actresses, Indalo Stofile and Chuma Sopotela, the errors would not be as glaring.

That said, the sheer power and necessity of the story is not lost in the different elements meant to help bring the narrative to its core. The use of thunder and rain sounds, the voiceovers of Albertina detailing her experiences along with a clip of HF Vervoerd’s justification of Apartheid to the international media. These elements more than enhance the reality of things.

There is an admirable juxtaposition, between two parallel lines, the human story against the protest/political activism and both are told concurrently without one overlapping on the other. Brilliance is observed during the sequence of the story where Albertina is arrested and tortured by the apartheid police.

CuePix/Ivan Blazic - National Arts Festival 2016
Indalo Stofile and Chuma Sopotela perform in Oomasisulu at The Box Theatre at the 2016 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. (Photo: CuePix/Ivan Blazic)

Indalo is absolutely haunting when she convulses, writhes and cries on the floor while a voiceover of the real Albertina details the experiences in the background. It is so powerful it nearly reduced me and most audience members to tears as a deafening silence fell over all of us leaving only the voiceover and the wails and sobs of the young lady on the floor.

My mother never sang me any lullabies, she was too busy dodging bullets” is one of the interweaving lines that plays in the soundtrack as the story winds down. The two younger women singing quietly while one is still throwing tired protests asking what it is baas wants from her. This closing leaves one feeling that in as much as the discourse around racial inequality has become overly saturated it is still a necessary conversation in our country.

Yes, Oomasisulu could do with some smoothing over that only comes with more practice and performances; it is a necessary piece of protest theatre that I would personally recommend to anyone.

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