Tswalo: An ontological piece of art

Written by Ziphozakhe Hlobo

“Can I have some water, I am dry,” said Billy during the performance. Mahlatsi rushed to get him water. “Water-breaks,” uttered Billy in undeniable satisfaction. “Mother’s water breaks and I was born…” he continued. 

On the 14th of June, I had the pleasure of going to Plat4orm in Newtown to see a theatrical piece written and performed by Billy Edward Langa and directed by Mahlatsi DBoy Mokgonyana. I was immediately astounded by Billy’s exceptionally detailed movement on stage; how every step and every turn looks perfect, like choreographed, but not quite, because it just looks effortless. His transition from ape to man entirely using his body revealed him as an incredible storytelling dancer. Among other things, Billy has the gift of inviting his audiences into his train of thoughts, carry and challenge them.

Tswalo is a lyrical prose, poetry and physical storytelling entwine to interrogate the rules that govern life on earth, those such as power, creation, truth, connection, intuition – the performers’ expression of his ‘source’. Being a spiritual quest that gives the audiences the baton to walk through their own paradigm of ontology, Tswalo’s poetry, prose and stories furnish us with the necessary tools into a deep meditation. It undoubtedly begs the question (or theory) of being, becoming and unbecoming. Indeed, when Billy says he remembers being in his mother’s womb, he leaves you no choice but to squeeze the texture of his work and ask yourself what is being said here, while you’re catching up with his magnificent poetry.

Produced in collaboration with The Movement RSA incubation program for networks, the team is currently in Cape Town for the Alexander Bar Theatre run before they head to the UK. It’s no wonder SHCC’s director, Tricia Sibbons, describes the piece as “a meditation on the important things in life in a spellbinding hour.” Tswalo demands that you reflect on your own life and ask yourself why you are here. 

For director Mahlatsi, this was an exciting journey to reconstruct poetry and deconstruct orthodox chronology in telling stories. This reminded me of words from one director I have worked with, who always emphasized, “Life is not linear. Shit happen abruptly, nonsensically and chaotically. We always have to carve the pieces back together ourselves.”

“There’s no clear beginning, middle and end in this piece – or at least when we planned it, we didn’t have that in mind. This is an experiment,” Mahlatsi said during the Q and As.

One wonders if such themes are the grapple of 2016’s black youth, to which Mahlatsi emphasizes the importance of re-imagining ourselves, hence the graceful imagery of romance between a black mother and father.

“Most of us grew up without our fathers; so Billy and I had to imagine the black family unbroken. Re-imagine our fathers being there and taking our mothers out. We had to imagine our fathers affording to order even water in a restaurant,” said Mahlatsi, to which the whole room bursted into laughter.

This observation concludes the play’s relevance at a time when young black men are remembering their fathers’ hair-cuts and black women remembering their grandmothers’ expression in fashion, the current natural hair explosion making the rounds and the re-writing of the narrative. This work  dares us to tap into this lane of memory even further; to an infinite union and love between the black man and woman; between ourselves and God; between ourselves and ourselves; to go beyond everything and find the likeliness in all of us.

Asked about some glaring moments  of the piece and what his intention was, Billy said he believes he was with God one day and said to Him, “chap, can you send me down there?” God chose for him a family and everyone who was going to lead him to his divine mission, but when he got here, there was much more to preoccupy him that he forgot why he came here. Now, in this piece, he is going back to the source (tswalo), hence he is on a trance with all the enmity abyss, but can still transcend to the spiritual world to recollect.

From this play, I found that aligning myself with my “purpose” is not really a task of learning new things, but rather that of remembering what I am already. Wow – what a time to be alive!

 

Black Art & the black consciousness movement

 

Written by Ziphozakhe Hlobo

In the past five years, I have come across many brilliant art works that, for me, deserve to be further explored in African studies, institution, community centres, theatres and public spaces. They deserve to be the lingua franca of the day.

This is one of my ultimate goals, because I think the disjuncture between my career and university was that I always had to motivate my arguments with old texts whose relevance had not been properly dissected into my narrative as a black woman. Admittedly, one of the caps I wear is that of academia, but, I have always wanted to study text from now and here; from artists who may not even be able to articulate the intellectual symbols of their works.

In Port Elizabeth, one of the early works I had the pleasure of seeing was Xolisa Ngubelanga’s Dinner With Bantu, a play flawlessly written by this eloquent and unapologetically black consciousness patriot. SABC News discussed the play as work that zooms into the spirit of black consciousness; the cultural and political revival of the oppressed people . . . nelson Mandela prepares his famous table to invite Steve Biko & Chris Hani.

dinner with bantu.jpg

This play was important to me in the black consciousness narrative because it somewhat paid homage to Biko’s concepts but did not die there in the past, it charged the spectator to take the baton after Biko and continue it. In fact, SABC News quoted Xabiso Zweni, the artistic director of the play saying, “at the end of the day, it is about selflessness, in whatever way we can give to our communities,” and Anele Peni , who plays Steve Biko said he thinks the play is important because the youth of South Africa is not living up to Steve Biko’s ideas and teachings.

I personally agree and disagree with Peni’s statement because I think people like them (in their work) epitomise those ideas. At this moment, let’s refresh our memories of what he says we are not following; let’s remind ourselves of what Biko said in describing the basic tenants of black consciousness. In “I Write What I Like,” Biko writes “It [black consciousness] seeks to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value-systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook on life.”

What this means for me, in relation to Dinner with Bantu, is that the play’s relevance is insurmountable because it also unpacks a sense of self-inflicted slavery and the need to have a “king” or a “leader,” an attitude that Ngubelanga was reversing here as he said this play is a slap across the face to build a more pro-active black community.

Much relevant to today’s youth, in Cape Town, I came across many artists whose content also uplifted this momentum, such as a poem by Khulani Maseko under the title, Kush.

Adapted from the famous book, Capitalist Nigger by Chika Onyeani, the poem deals with the path to economic freedom for the colonised & neo-colonised black people in Africa or as Onyeani refers to it, “The Road To Success.” With bold and true docunstructive methods of the façade of freedom that we, Africans, think we have, Maseko says;

“Doesn’t freedom mean you don’t depend on anyone for anything? Well, we depend on everyone for everything.”  

[Maseko, Kush, 2013]

He does something interesting which Sean-Paul Sartre recognises when writing a preface on Fanon; addresses black people and only black people; at no point does he speak to Europe. His is to equip black people with what he thinks can drive them forward, and as Capitalist Nigger suggests, it is a local economy or what is known as the spider-web doctrine.

“There’s no need to re-invent a new Will. Take from them what they took from us,” Maseko says and again, leading me to reminisce on the fact that Fanon who was writing in the 60s said that the process of decolonisation is that of complete disorder.

But also, you realise that Maseko’s approach does somewhat reflect Onyeani’s statements under “Ruthlessness In The Pursuit Of Excellence” where he defines the capitalist nigger to be ruthless. “He [the capitalist nigger] must reflect ruthlessness in his pursuit of excellence in his drive towards achieving his goal of being an economic warrior,” and also states that there needs to be an attitude shift in Africans; less whining and more taking. “Richard Branson doesn’t whine and beg for what he wants. He takes it,” says Onyeani.

Just as well, Maseko, who I know not to drink alcohol personally, speaks about alcohol in his poem; interestingly, he does not tell black people not to drink, he tells them to start manufacturing their own alcohol.

Onyeani and Maseko deal with the failure of leadership in Africa, which cannot be denied and which has made progress slow. In this respect, a play called Book of Rebellations (a play on Book of Revelations) at the Artscape Theatre felt to me like a chapter from the Wretched of the earth by Frantz Fanon, specifically, The Pitfalls of National Consciousness. The play is described by Media Update as an “allegorical fantasy . . . [telling a story of Kanana, a place under the rulership of Tlhogo Moimele], a dictator who is deaf to the sufferings of his people.”

Written by Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi and Kgafela Oa Magogodi, the play undertakes a mission to display the moral decay in leadership, which neglects people and only favours one man – the leader (and those closest to him).

It’s really the typical sad African leadership story where before independence is gained, the leader is for the people and fully understands their struggles until greed and power for the sake of power creeps in. The brilliance of the play is in how these moments in question are articulated by its musical rendition flawlessly synchronised with the pace and rhythm of the play itself and the actors do a superb job.

The dire condition of the people (who are completely neglected) reminds me of The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah, who was writing against the backdrop of Krumah’s leadership in Ghana. In this case, are writers not in an intergenerational conversation?

Both texts are thoroughly explicit in the abyss of society, but also give hope by following the narrative of a few characters that still stand for what is right.

 

Taking these discussions to consideration, as a creator and spectator of the arts, it always puzzles me that during real talks with black artists, one of the things that always emerge is the jealousy and/or pull-him/her-down syndrome.

Even if you don’t witness it yourself, black artists’ grievances include such politics and that of never having one’s community endorse them. It seems as though there is still the general misconception that if it is black, it is not worthy of accreditation and needs a white face to verify it or for people to believe in it.

A human nature characteristic, I suppose, but I always feel that the progress of black artists is sacrificed and loses the black unity niche that their art unpacks and discusses. Shouldn’t there be some kind of intersection between what one says in the public and what one practises personally, or am I being too emotional about this?

I believe that the most sensitive citizens in the world are artists, for they cannot bear the agony of not speaking the truth unapologetically, but is this truth sometimes left on page and stage to manifest for others and not for the artist? In black consciousness work, what lies beyond the art? If we have acknowledged Onyeani’s theories about the capitalist nigger, why would black people be the first to slash DJ Sbu’s path to capitalism and wealth? Is that not the decolonisation and revolution we always utter on stage? And, those in the positions of power in the arts also often represent the leadership that Book of Rebellations  speaks about. The patriarchal structure of the industry means that some producers sleep with different women (mostly black) selling them dreams. This has led to the biggest crack in black consciousness because it has put black women and black men at the opposite sides of the fence. They no longer speak the same language. Where is the unity here? Why are funds that are supposed to build black art in the most deprived of communities being embezzled by black leaders?

Lastly, how do we carry these values forward may be found in these brilliant works of art and the practicality of what is carried within them.

 

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