BWW Reviews: NDEBELE FUNERAL Brings Vibrant Life to FringeNYC
The Fringe Festival always delivers wide varieties of theater, theater that is presented quite differently than what is usually displayed in the mainstream scene. This year is no different and one of the more unique shows in performances down town this year is Smoke and Mirrors Co.'s NDEBELE FUNERAL.
Set in modern South Africa, NDEBELE FUNERAL takes place in a Soweto slum. There we find Dharweti, an educated woman living in a shack who is dieing from HIV. Preparing for her death, Dharweti begins to build herself a coffin, one space that is all her own, with government provided supplies meant for home repairs. In this time she interacts with Thabo, her best friend from college, and Jan, a government official who has been sent to check on the usage of the government given supplies.
What gives NDEBELE FUNERAL its authenticity is the challenging, always present, dilemma of what is right and what is wrong in terms of morals, religious views, and in the eyes of different people or groups. Dharweti, played with convincing passion and visibly as on who has simply reached her limit by the play's writer Zoey Martinson, is a character of strength of multiple levels. She is one who has been dealt an undeservedly poor hand but continues to prevail based on instinct, the way she has always gone through her life. Thabo challenges her throughout the piece and though they are best friends, their views on religion and life processes are typically different.
Watching Yusef Miller's Thabo we see the positive strength and energy that Dharweti needs come through but soon learn what recent events challenge him and what he preaches as well. Miller's interpretation of the role is well calculated as the young, collegiate Thado is reserved and timid but instantly reaches his full potential once Dharweti comes to his life. He preaches what he knows to help her but some of his recent actions, as learned later on, do not match what he says allowing the character to become a vivid image of complexity.
Jonathan David Martin is pitch perfect as Jan. The awkward and goofy poise and mannerisms he initially dresses his character with deliver a humorous hue in the dark gloom of the play. However, when he is dragged into that gloom he demonstrates strong acting abilities and a monologue that was not expected to come from his character. He becomes the middleman of Dharweti and Thabo and becomes one the audience sees as a partial tour guide or a further entrance into the world that is on the stage, no simple task.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of NDEBELE FUNERAL is the original music by Spirits Indigenous and the gumboot dancing from the mines in Jo'burg. Though I did not understand the lyrics presented with the songs and music, as can be assumed many will not, the movement and emphasis of each syllable with overlapping dialogue is brilliant and the message comes through. Even though each character comes with various motives and derives from somewhere different the essence of giving themselves and offering who they are and what they have comes through in a captivating way that brings the piece together beautifully.
As with any good theater, questions arise after viewing NDEBELE FUNERAL. The play is so well written that each action of each character can both be supported as well as protested, especially after peeling back and examining each layer that has been provided. That comes from being able to understand the character from where they come from, what they want, and wanting to know where they are going.
Fate is a concept that can be related to the play, as well is religion. Fate and religion are always topics of debate, topics that can also seem repetitive, especially in drama. But it seems very raw here presenting the ideas of living for God and the Bible, disagreeing with them, or not believing in the existence at all. Each of the characters must face these questions and no corner is left out allowing the conversations to flow, have meaning, and not seem as though they were placed there just to make a smart comment. What is presented throughout the drama places you in the slums of South Africa and the minds of its inhabitants making it seem real, authentic, and vibrant.
NDEBELE FUNERAL represents so much more than a look at a part of the world and a quick story, it represents challenging points of view that are represented amongst all cultures placed in an area that is unfamiliar to many. What makes it great is the connection the majority of audiences will be able to find in the dialogue but the powerful punch that is received from what is so unknown upon walking in.