REVIEW

iToyiToyi – Step in the Right Direction

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Mangaung’s prodigal son, Masedi Manenye, took a short-left back home to open the new decade with his new multifaceted musical, iToyi-Toyi. Tshiamo Malatji took notes and files this report for ART STATE.

It is uncommon in Mangaung for a production to feature so soon into the year, but Masedi Manenye’s iToyi-Toyi: a Story of a Dance That Got Tired did so on four consecutive days between 29 January and 01 February 2020, opening to 100 attendees at Bloemfontein’s Civic Theatre. The production is inspired by recent Fees Must Fall protests, owing its name to the Toyi Toyi dance.

Manenye told Art State that the production intends to be a reflection of self and a reflection of government, ultimately attempting to be thought provoking. “We see what is happening everyday. Things are falling apart,” Manenye said. “We try to pick up the pieces now and then, but it’s becoming harder and harder. Maybe, it’s time we do the work like this to start provoking some sort of a dialogue.”

The setup
The stage was a dimly-lit blue for the entire production, with subtle variations. This created a non-disruptive but nonconstant atmosphere. From the onset, it was clear tragedy would follow. Very few props were employed. Permanently, there were only crates on the stage to sit on and six street poles. This simplicity belongs to a new school of ‘poor theatre’ which replaces elaborate sets and expensive costumes for authentic common stories that resonate with people.

A few scenes used umbrellas, hats and some very swift and creative costume changes. The set design allowed for action on one part of the stage to not distract a visible costume change on the other side. The actors were very efficient in preparing for each scene and the pacing of the production varied when it needed to, with most of the action developing quickly.

Old man Msimang dropping pearls of wisdom. Credit: Mudboots Photography.

The play is presented over two related time periods focusing on the upbringing and demise of Music, the waylost leader of a contemporary South African political party. Initially, we are introduced to a younger Music (Lesedi Manenye) and her grandfather, Selby Msimang (Kabi Thulo), who ushers her on a “long and never-ending journey.” It is understood that Music is important since one of the six streets in her community are named after her grandfather. This sets up the majority of the play as the unwinding of the power of an older Music, played by Tshisa star Tshireletso Nkoane.

Kill the music
Boitumelo Mohutsioa performed as Poetry, the delayed antagonist of the production, supporting the political leader until the middle of the action when Poetry plots with Marabi, played stunningly by Lehlohonolo Tlhabanelo. Once loyal followers of Music’s cause, they and fellow members of their political association disagree with the direction Music has taken the party, referencing recent political losses. It is not explicitly shown at what point they choose to betray her, especially given that Music anointed Poetry as her successor. Poetry does at least acknowledge at some point that there are issues with Music, but since these issues have always been present, it is unclear how Poetry decides she has had enough.

However, the scene of the betrayal was one of the best executed components of the production. The action rose slowly, allowing the build-up of tension, and the betrayal itself was choreographed through dance, activating our creative imagination. Still, the production, which ran for just under 50 minutes, owed more time to developing the changes in its primary antagonist which would have elevated the tension much more.

For her part, Music believes she was ordained to rule, making multiple references to God. Here, the play misses the opportunity for Music to also claim the legacy of her family and grandfather, which is never mentioned in the present time. Ultimately, her fate is decided by the duo of Matorokisi (John Paka), and Vosho (Mlungisi Tsobeka). Matorokisi and Vosho are members of the association belonging to a competing faction of sorts, who caution against Music earlier in the play. The entire affair can be understood in classical theatre terms as a tragedy wherein a major flaw in the protagonist develops their downfall. The characterisations of Matorokisi and Vosho deserve applaud for managing to shift between comic relief and intense drama, complimented by Paka’s phenomenal musical talent.

No country for old men
Toyi Toyi, played magnificently by Mbuyiselo Nqodi, presents as the moral backbone of the political association, explaining the progress of South African activism from the apartheid era through the various dispensations of democratic governments. “I was there,” he bellows at the agitated youth with an outstanding monologue which summarises the motif of the production as a call to reinvent our activism. Toyi Toyi, however, is helpless in affecting the actions of Music or her conspirators. Perhaps this is a deliberate attempt to explain the directionless of South Africa’s student politics but it also created an awkward redundancy for Toyi Toyi’s role in the production, having very little influence on its events.

Et tu, Poetry? Credit: Mudboots Photography.

More uncomfortable was the unexplained descent of Music from her grandfather’s teachings. The play often reverts to the past for a showing of Msimang’s cautions of the future to a young Music – if only she had kept to his ways. Her grandfather had set the path for her, explicitly naming a major street. So, how does she find herself lost in her ways? Perhaps, this is meant to suggest that contemporary politics is senseless in its betrayal of historical causes. If Matorokisi and Vosho understood Music’s inadequacies, what initially caused Poetry and Marabi to support her? How did Music rise to power in the first place? There are many questions surrounding the overall narrative of the production that are unanswered.

Maabane, gompieno, bokamoso…
At the same time, the story is vaguely narrated through poetry monologues, which are delivered by different characters, sometimes characters deliver lines of speech in unison. This was masterfully executed, especially scenes where the young and old Music speak together. This is the only connection in the production between the past and present. It is also effective at juxtaposing how different the older Music has become from her younger self. But it is lost on the audience how the older Music can no longer resonate with the younger Music if indeed their voices are still synchronised.

Saved by the bell
Some of the general gaps of the production are filled by musical masterclass. Paka, Mohutsioa, and Tlhabanelo shone in performances of prominent South Africa protest music. These are used commonly through the production to elevate tension and mark the shifting of a story arc. Paka’s chilling voice also calms the action, preparing for scenes explaining how often political leadership abandons its people. Local award-nominated afro-jazz composer, Andile Qonqqo, certainly borrowed heavily from mainstream political anthems in developing the music for the production, closing the musical score with the Fees Must Fall update of Enoch Sontonga’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

Mphe-mphe wa lapisa
That was not the only overzealous borrowing in the production. Often, lines of dialogue were taken in verbatim form from popular aphorisms. For instance, the common phrase, “only the dead have seen the end of war” is acontextually shouted out once. The play also borrowed from itself multiple times, repeating exact lines of script in different scenes. The overall writing of the play could definitely improve. There was often vary vague poetry uttered as dialogue. This confusing exposition was particularly troubling because the production had very few lines overall. There were also common occurrences of cheap humour, such as transposing the phrase election with ‘erection’ to elicit comic relief. The timing of the comic relief was always unexpected and awkward, breaking from very serious preceding action. Certainly, the audience enjoyed most of the jokes presented by the cast, with regular outbreaks of laughter.

Vosho, Matorokisi and Marabi dance the future away. Credit: Mudboots Photography.

Jill of all trades
Where the production truly suffers is the incomplete inclusion of various art forms. It makes use of a projected screen to display information related to the production, such as subtitles of vernacular dialogue and musical lyrics. However, the action moves a lot quicker than the screen’s display, distracting viewers. The screen graphics could have also been improved to a more professional production standard. There was at least one moment of brilliance when all the characters huddled centre-stage with umbrellas open and Toyi Toyi ushered a brilliant monologue while a montage of South African history played along the screen.

The dance in the production was choreographed by Bongani Zulu and was often effective, especially in scenes of high tension. The general flow of movement was aided by the fact that the entire cast was barefoot for the entire production. However, the choreography was not always smooth, with some actors often lapsing out of coordination. This was also true for their acting at times. It was common for the actors to lack a sense of awareness, like they were displaced in time or frozen in place. This affected their often lazy movements across which did not seem like a deliberate attempt to display coarseness, but certainly achieved the effect. Borrowing from the title, the characters did indeed look tired. Their energy was only reserved for the high action scenes resulting in disappointing buffers in between. The exception here are the consistent performances of Paka and Tlhabanelo who strongly adopted their characters even when out of action.

It seemed the production attempted to be a jack of music, poetry, dance, visual art, comedy and drama, but was ultimately a master of none, apart from a few stellar performances. Perhaps, Itoyi-Toyi has the potential to develop into a groundbreaking production, able to converge so many different art forms. But its current form is brief, vague, coarse and rushed. At the same time, it is a musical wonder, a relevant story and a much-welcomed new form of theatre. In Manenye’s words, “What you see is what you make of it and what you make of it is what you see.”

Tshimo Malatji is the founder of PoClub, his new poetry chapbook, “and the black trees”, can be downloaded here.

FEATURED IMAGE: Music gets marching orders from her grandfather. Credit: Mudboots Photography.

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