BWW Reviews: RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS Falters Rather than Flies at the National Arts Festival

Conceptual artwork for

On paper, Mike van Graan's RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS seems like a great idea. A throwback to one of the greatest South African plays, WOZA ALBERT!, the play is set in the current day with Steve Biko and Neil Aggett returning to South Africa to experience the country two decades after the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first democratically elected president of post-apartheid South Africa. As they travel to Nkandla, the pair encounters various characters, which embody a veritable laundry list of socio-political problems in the country today. On paper, the idea works - but something has been lost in the translation from the concept to the script, which received its world premiere in a production at the National Arts Festival last week. RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS has none of the searing emotive power of its own predecessor, nor does it feel like the call to action that so many of the great protest plays of the past aspired to be.

One of the major challenges that RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS fails to negotiate is how to transform its socio-political observations into drama. As in WOZA ALBERT!, the many characters that appear in the play are played by two actors. The key difference is that each of those characters in WOZA ALBERT! has a distinct voice. One walks away remembering vividly characters like Auntie Dudu, Zuluboy and Bobbejaan, the meat vendor and the barber as well as the respective socio-political issues faced by each of them. In RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS, the characters' voices reproduce the playwright's almost without exception, distancing the audience even further from issues about which they already desensitised. Consequently, the disenfranchisement of South African citizens stemming from the corrupt behaviour of their leaders fades into the background after the opening scene, in which the character of an old lady succeeds in establishing some engagement with the issues.

As a post-modern response to WOZA ALBERT!, RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS also needs to grapple more deeply with the conventions and techniques employed in the earlier play, which came about through the process of collaborative workshopping that was employed in its creation by Mbongeni Ngema, Percy Mtwa and Barney Simon. The differences between that approach and this more traditional playwriting-into-production model are obvious and RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS might benefit from being put through a thorough workshop process. Not only might this solve the problems with the characterisation in the piece, it might also provide the piece with a more varied structure with better transitions from scene to scene and a chance to interrogate whether certain aspects of the play work theatrically, such as the choice to have Neil Aggett representing the elusive "ancestors" within the context of the play; the decision to cast a black actor to play Neil Aggett in the context of its production; and the inclusion of water-cooler level jokes and one-liners as the primary source of comedy in the play. For my part, these were all factors that limited the efficacy of RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS in making a shift in the audience's consciousness about the way we respond to the socio-political realities we face - or from which we perhaps divert our gaze - today.

Siya Sukawuti and Mandisi Shindo
Siya Sukawuti and Mandisi Shindo

Given the many difficulties left unaddressed in the text, the throughline that director Mdu Kewyama and actors Mandisi Sindo and Siya Sikawuti manage to contrive in RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS is no mean feat. Sindo and Sikawuti keeps things moving even if they do not always have the space to work for more differentiated and complex characterisation. The design of the play, with parts of the stage strewn with newspaper to the left and right of a central revolving platform, works well as an image generator when all of the bits fall into place, as in the sequence where a model Nkandla is built, but there are times when the set feels extraneous and not well enough integrated with the action of the play. There is room for a far deeper interrogation of the relationship between text and performance in this production.

There is a sequence near the end of RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS where Van Graan attempts to draw together the events that have formed the precarious situation in which South Africa stands at the current time. Similar to the manner in which THE FANTASTICAL HISTORY OF A USELESS MAN links the passing of the apartheid laws to the making of the then-current generation of progressively-minded white South Africans, a list of key recent events in South African history is rattled off as the image of Nkandla looms in the background. The result should be shocking, even horrific - a moment of realisation that provokes audiences to take action against the injustice that characterises the daily existence of many people in this country. Instead, we are left quite comfortably able to pat ourselves on the back for being able to acknowledge what we already know to be wrong, without being challenged to do anything about it. That RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS preserves the status quo rather than serving us our own heads on a platter for our part in creating and perpetuating the problems of our society is the most obvious sign that the play needs to bridge the gap between conceptualisation and execution. Protest theatre should burn fiercely in the darkness that surrounds it; RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS only flickers enough for us to make out what we have already seen.

RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS performs at the National Arts Festival at the Gymnasium until 12 July at 17:30 daily. Tickets are available at the National Arts Festival website, from the box offices at the NAF or at the door.

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