By BRUCE DENNILL
Another One’s Bread / Directed by Pamela Nomvete / Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg 8.5
Food security. An incredibly – and increasingly – important topic in an age where populations are sky-rocketing and resources are heading in the opposite direction. Also, something that’s fairly high up on the worthy-but-painfully-boring list of subjects to write plays about. Really – keep that sort of thing for conferences and scientific or political get-togethers. People go to the theatre to be entertained; for escapism. All the unsourced surveys say so, right?
Fortunately, playwright Mike Van Graan is one for both indulging in or declaiming at length on serious themes and creating award-winning entertainment. Nevertheless, when, in a play commissioned by DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security (conferences, scientists, politicians…), he induces his audience to belly-laugh in the opening seconds, it’s a surprise.
Such dichotomies abound in the play. The protagonists are professional mourners, a trio that later becomes a quartet called The Substitutes, hired to wail, cry and poetically eulogise at community funerals in their hometown of Khayelitsha. But they are cheerful, ebullient characters, funny and earthily affectionate – the emotional opposite of what could be expected in those sad scenarios.
And those funerals – places of profound loss – are where the Substitutes earn a little bit of money and the leftovers from the shared meal, which they then pass on to youngsters in underprivileged schools, completing an edifying loop and creating a strong dramatic platform for the rest of the story.
Built up around that foundation are a number of cleverly interlinked story threads, the occasional activist thrust, and humour that taps into the multi-ethnic influences of both the piece’s characters and its audience. The latter is delivered with such whole-hearted, committed physicality by all four cast members that, if this piece was recorded and then replayed with the sound off, it would still make effective comedy.
Van Graan has given each of the actresses a fully rounded, distinct character to inhabit, and each cast member ensures that the nuances in the script are properly and effectively communicated, making the messages clear, the intimacy raw and the laughs loud. Faniswa Yisa, Chuma Sopotela, Motlatji Ditodi and Awethu Hleli do get the opportunity to try and outdo each other in volume, intensity or dramatic behaviour, but only because their characters’ relationships are based on such robust foundations. Good luck to any awards judges who don’t have the option of presenting their prize to an ensemble rather than an individual.
In a strange way, that sense of togetherness points to what is perhaps the production’s most enduring message: whatever hard lessons there are to learn, and however complex they may be, making real progress relies on having the support and (ultimately) unconditional love of our communities.