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Review: WOZA SARAFINA! at Cape Town Fringe a Disruption that Needs to Erupt

Review: WOZA SARAFINA! at Cape Town Fringe a Disruption that Needs to Erupt
WOZA SARAFINA! at the Cape Town Fringe

WOZA SARAFINA! wears its pedigree on its sleeve. Its title references two clear influences on the play - the South African theatre classics, Mbongeni Ngema, Percy Mtwa and Barney Simon's WOZA ALBERT! and Ngema's subsequent creation, SARAFINA - and a third is mentioned in the publicity materials for the show, Wole Soyinka's FROM ZIA, WITH LOVE. All three of those pieces detail some aspect of acting against injustice. WOZA ALBERT! engages with many aspects of life in apartheid-era South Africa, while SARAFINA focuses specifically on the 1976 student uprisings. FROM ZIA, WITH LOVE is set against the backdrop of prison life during the second Nigerian Military Junta. Writer-director Koleka Putuma's assemblage of ideas and motifs drawn from those sources is constructed within the context of the #RhodesMustFall movement and is informed by the ideologies that underpin that movement. While it speaks many truths, the play falls prey to the law of diminishing returns, never quite capturing the vitality and potency of its predecessors.

Set in the near future, WOZA SARAFINA! sees a group of students imprisoned after bombing several colonial statues. The students' outrage is directed not only at tangible targets like the statues but also at the psychological impact of living with the legacy that those statues represent, as well as the wider issues at stake, such as the decolonisation of education.As the play following the prison experiences of the students, the actors also recreate scenes focusing on the commonalities that brought their group together the divisions that nonetheless still separate them.

Putuma's script, while it is timely and filled with many observations that cut through the rhetoric that surrounds the fallist movements, has the feeling of a work-in-progress. There are some first-class scenes and many phenomenally powerful passages of speech that that dot the episodic narrative of the play, while other scenes still seem to be finding their shape, possibly a function of developing the piece with a student cast within the context of a tertiary institution.

There are times when the future setting of the play undercuts the sense of urgent immediacy that characterises many of the great protest and resistance pieces and, indeed, that of the movements broached by the play. One of the strengths of watching pieces like WOZA ALBERT! is the sense of being caught up in the moment of the action. The distance that WOZA SARAFINA! employs overall leaves the play feeling like an end in itself, offering its own catharsis, without a gauntlet thrown down for the audience to take up.

That missed moment reminded me of the first time I saw SARAFINA! As a child, the experience of watching that musical was a defining moment for me in understanding that there was something wrong with the country in which I was growing up. I was hoping to experience a moment as definitive as that when watching WOZA SARAFINA! But it never came, and this made me consider the choice made here to invoke a fictional character as a totem in this play. In WOZA ALBERT, Zuluboy appeals to Morena to raise Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, Lillian Ngoyi, Steve Biko, Bram Fischer, Ruth First, Griffith Mxenge and Hector Pieterson. Part of the power of their invocation was their realness. Sarafina fades into the background when Putuma's script speaks of Ngoyi and her place in our society, and even the statues named as monuments that should be destroyed have greater impact than the figure through which Ngema explored the events now commemorated on Youth Day. The choice to name this play for her stands as a symbol of the greatest challenge facing WOZA SARAFINA! as a contemporary South African theatre text: how to pay tribute to its influences without feeling derivative.

WOZA SARAFINA! is performed by a group of nine actors from the CityVarsity Acting Department. Together, Taylor Evans, Amandla Galeni, Lesego Mathikge, Mario Matiya, Haamidah Mohammad, Lauren Smith, Jennifer Timbo, Ashlon Thomas and Sesethu Zamxaka form a tight ensemble, each supporting the other as they create their distinct student personae.

Putuma's directorial hand is felt most strongly in drawing of these performances from this group of students. Her staging of the play using white crates is also inventive and image-rich. Her work is supported by an atmospheric sound design by Jonathan Gibson.

Wole Soyinka's FROM ZIA WITH LOVE illuminates a radio play that Soyinka had written a year earlier, A SCOURGE OF HYACINTHS. The later piece, which expands on the narrative ideas and themes presented in the earlier one, is ultimately a more complex, challenging and satisfying dramatic work. Taken overall, WOZA SARAFINA! feels more like A SCOURGE OF HYACINTHS than FROM ZIA WITH LOVE. It is a puzzle that demands to be completed, and a disruption that needs to erupt. WOZA SARAFINA! has to find a way to deliver more than just "the feels".

WOZA SARAFINA! runs at City Hall 1 at the Cape Town Fringe until 25 September. Details of performance times and bookings are through the Cape Town Fringe website.

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From This Author - David Fick

Born and bred in South Africa, David is an award-winning arts journalist who has loved theatre since the day he set foot on stage in his preschool nativity play. He graduated with a Master of Arts... (read more about this author)