By BRUCE DENNILL
Thula Thula / Directed by Mxolisi Masilela / Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre, Johannesburg
If you’re the sort of person to allow terms like “community theatre”, “mentor” and “incubator programme” to influence your view of the worthiness of a new work in a negative way, here’s some advice: stop it.
Thula Thula is the winner of the 2014 Zwakala Award, given to the best production in an event designed to highlight work performed in community theatres, with part of the reward being a staging of the show in the Barney Simon Theatre. All that means, though, is that it was first developed outside of a mainstream theatre and its pool of associated producers and directors. It is not necessarily a marker of lower quality in any facet of its make-up and that’s a perception that needs to be quashed.
This is a play that will go a long way to erasing any condescending notions of “the youngsters needing some proper insight” or similar tosh. Playwright and director Mxolisi Masilela has come up with a smart, multi-tiered parable that deals with a the sort of subject matter usually waded through in heavy, overly worthy pieces that only ever make it to the stage because the organisations that fund then have no clue how to approach the issues dealt with in the scripts other than by forcing a heavy-handed message into a stifling drama.
His take on abuse, sexual confusion and, ultimately, rape is far more entertaining than any story dealing in such heartbreaking fare has any right to be. It involves dance (with the sinewy Alfred Motlhapi, who plays a sweet kid named Sunshine, being extraordinarily skilled in that department), song (the cast combine to produce sublime, stirring a capella harmonies), percussion (Micca Manganye is a wizard, providing constant rhythmical accompaniment via conga and bongo drums, shakers, chimes and cowbells throughout the entire play) and imaginative use of props (buckets signify innocence, regret, and even bpdy parts).
All of that means it is a production unlike anything most audiences have ever seen. But the novelty value is only part of the appeal. Itumeleng Rhonah Moeketsi as Ithumeleng gives a performance that eloquently presents to the audience the combination of naivete, loneliness and immaturity that places so many young women at risk – of falling for lies; of making stupid decisions; of being unable to give people and their actions a proper value. Oupa Malatjie is a brooding, petulant presence, while Mongezi Mabunda (as Thabo) and Motlhapi are charming suitors, but with notably different intents.
This is tough material to watch, but unlike so many projects that take on topics about which people need to know but are unlikely to want to know, it is original, shrewd, energetic and well performed. Thula Thula may have had to push its way in from the periphery, but now that it is on a major stage, the play and those involved its creation deserve to stay firmly in the spotlight.