BY BRUCE DENNILL
The House Of Truth / Directed by Vanessa Cooke / Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg
The Market Theatre hosted a play, Crepuscule, about Drum magazine journalist and short story writer Can Themba, in 2015. The writer’s influence is such that, in relatively short order, another play, this one written by Siphiwo Mahala (his first professional script), is now on at the same theatre, not far from Themba’s beloved Sophiatown – now Triomf.
It’s a wordy one-hander, with the experienced Sello Maake kaNcube as Themba, and the writer’s typewriter the fulcrum around which all of the action takes place. In the context of a situation where local audiences have had the above-mentioned opportunity to be introduced to aspects of Themba’s already storied life, the level of detail into which Mahala – currently pursuing a doctorate centred on Themba’s life – goes is perhaps too much.
kaNkube’s competence is not in question, though even he appears to have a few moments where some of the finer details escape him and he has to improvise his way through three or four half-sentences to find the next cue. It simply that, without anyone or anything else on stage to play off – other characters, including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, occasionally make an appearance, but they are voiced by the kaNkube and need to be imagined by the audience – the protagonist is not given much scope to do anything other than talk about himself, his work and his philosophies. As such, the piece plays like an extended, dramatic CV, or a theatrical, impassioned lecture about Themba’s life and times – informative, certainly, but often a touch too dense to be diverting.
One aspect of the script that does stand out is the passion with which Themba fought for fair treatment during apartheid, and how reasonable his expectations were. His major complaint here is that, even though he has authentic qualifications and is a renowned writer and poet, working as the assistant editor of Drum, he is denied a decent salary. He doesn’t want the world – as the play’s title suggests, values are more important to him than material wealth – but as intelligent, creative individual whose professional worth is recognised in every other way, he is denied the wage his services are worth. The contents of a couple of letters passing between him and the apartheid government show how insidious the latter’s institutions were, using little more than bureaucracy to repel his repeated requests for reasonable treatment. Of course, there is at one point also the sinister sound of bulldozers – the more obvious manifestation of the hated regime – and the juxtaposition of the two is heartbreaking, as Themba is blocked at every turn.