Theatre Review: Cincinatti – Looking Back To Go Forward, Or Enjoying A Bit Of A Barney

August 23, 2015



Cincinatti: Scenes From City Life / Directed by Clive Mathibe / Laager Theatre, Market Theatre, Johannesburg


This new production of Cincinatti, first created and staged in 1979, is part of a celebration of Barney Simon, who was famously one of the co-founders of the Market Theatre and the director of the original play.

Opening night saw several speeches in praise of Simon, his vision and his enduring influence on young South African theatre makers, including a few words by Vanessa Cooke, who was part of the cast who improvised the script for Cincinatti 36 years ago.

All of this contributes to an air of nostalgia that, while warm and fuzzy – it’s certainly a history worth celebrating – can have a negative impact on the way the piece is considered. For one thing, the play is far too long (the better part of three hours), with each of the “scenes from city life” able to benefit from a touch of tightening up. This is not to say that there is much in each section that doesn’t fit with the dialogue or action, but simply that what is done or said could be done in a bit less time.

In the best way possible, the script feels dated. On one level, that’s an obvious point to make, with a lot having changed in the three-and-a-half decades between the story’s conception and revision. More subtly, the fact that it’s relatively difficult to really connect with the characters because the tropes used are different now is worth noting. There are a number of audience members now in or approaching middle age who were too young to have gone to Club Sin Sin, the nightspot where patrons of all races and classes were thrilled to have the opportunity to interact, flouting apartheid laws and attitudes as they did so. They will remember those attitudes, but not the actions, and their kids – now 12 or younger – may have no reference point at all for what’s going on onstage.

Remembering history, and particularly celebrating the role of individuals who used arts to help steer communities through difficult times, is important. But using looking back as part of a marketing strategy makes it more difficult to commend the future. The Market Theatre is revered worldwide for its role in combating prejudice, but in this case, it could be argued that revisiting a work built around characters who are coming to terms with their roles in a fractured society is actually reminding people of intolerance.

Counter to that notion – Cincinatti is a piece that swings back and forth – is the diversity of the cast, who represent a range of races, genders, nationalities and language groups. Best of a fairly large ensemble (nine actors is a lot in a venue the size of the Laager) are Chuma Sopotela as Thembsie, a feisty, funny, occasionally furious woman willing to do most things for a buck; and Odelle De Wet as Pat, a perma-stoned Rhodesian ex-pat who is more or less Thembsie’s opposite, being happy to accept the largesse of others without giving anything back. These two actresses and characters are also responsible for the show’s loudest laughs.

Cincinatti shows what was possible for actors and writers working in a very different – and difficult – political landscape. What will be exciting is to see whether a new generation take the idea and add contemporary relevance. That’s a legacy theatre fans and practitioners will enjoy.