By BRUCE DENNILL
Ketekang / Directed by James Ngcobo / Market Theatre, Johannesburg
Superficially, it’s difficult to formulate an appreciation of what Ketekang is all about as you walk in. The running order – and it’s a long one – provided with the programme underlines the fact that it’s a song and dance number (interspersed with excerpts from plays and parts of poems).
That lack of narrative, plus the fact that many of the songs and other material are focused around the theme of the Struggle, gives the piece a wobbly sort of balance, with some audience members wondering if it’s necessary, regardless of the Market Theatre’s superb credentials when it comes to stories with a message, to mount yet another production with such a premise.
Director James Ngcobo’s explanation that it’s the theatre’s salute to South Africa’s 20 years of democracy anniversary doesn’t help much initially as, for better or worse, that angle has been flogged to within an inch of its life by every institution needing a hook for their 2014 event.
What saves Ketekang conceptually is that it takes creative inspiration from beyond South Africa as well, looking to the United States, where the American civil rights movement reached the half-century mark this year. Knowing that the supposed poster kids for the Free World still struggle with issues of race and culture as much as South Africans do helps to put the current state of affairs locally in perspective – if only because it’s comforting to know that prejudice, wherever it’s exercised, has never been given an easy ride.
Once you’re able to properly get your head around the idea behind the show (one punter in the lobby beforehand described it as a “greatest hits package”, which spoke to the perception that the piece was more a stand-in for a new original script than something worth acclaim in its own right) what actually transpires on stage is easier to enjoy.
There are 30 different contributions to one multi-faceted 90-minute collection of music, drama and movement and Ngcobo and his cast deserve huge credit for way they seamlessly link songs, acting, choreography and poetry.
The onstage band, comprising musical director Tshepo Mngoma, drummer Godfrey Mgcina (the heartbeat of the show), pianists Johan Mtethwa and Sebetsa Ezbie Moilwa, bassist Sakhile Mpendulo Nkosi and guitarist Ntokozo Zungu, is fantastic. And with choreography by 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Luyanda Sidiya and songs and snippets of plays and poems from writers including Athol Fugard, Zakes Mda, Dorothy Masuku, Simphiwe Dana, Marvin Gaye, Maya Angelou and Professor Keroapetse Kgositile, the quality of the source material is kept high.
Established stars such as Aubrey Poo and Nokukhanya Dlamini are pushed all the way by intense, focused youngsters including Lebohang Toko, Lesedi Job and Katlego Letsholonyana (who, as an aside, must be given a chance to play Steven Biko at some point – the resemblance is worth noting).
One sour note: the excerpt from Zakes Mda’s The Hill deals with corruption, featuring a mid-level mine official lording it over two workers looking for shifts and refusing to help them until the “extra page” (a R10 note) in their pass book is provided. It should be a sobering reminder of corruption as a stain on our society in general and as a destructive force in South African mining in recent times specifically.
The response from the audience, though? Laughter. Does that reaction have any grounding in reality? Would they have a giggle if R10 was all it took to get through the door for an interview they coveted? It’s probably nothing sinister, but it’s unlikely that Mda was trying to make light of the situation he wrote about and, given that corruption at every level has been perhaps the main reason to be cynical about celebrating two decades of democracy, perhaps a more thoughtful response might be more appropriate.