Tshiamo Malatji writes about Kamara, a bizarre combination of poetry, dance and puppetry, directed by Jojo Mokirisi and starring Kwena Peu.￼
Seldom is Mangaung excited by full theatrical productions of any of the “old guard” professional arts of contemporary dance, poetry and puppetry. However, for three days in early November, these three arts combined to produce the satisfying Kamara. The play is a riveting ensemble merging traditional storytelling tropes with local zest.
The remaining residents of our metro who profess to be theatrically inclined, together with young, vibrant art enthusiasts, flocked to the Andre Huguenet Theatre from the 9th to the 11th of November for a unique storytelling experience. The uniqueness drew from the bizarre combination of poetry, dance and puppetry to deliver the narrative.
The production was directed by Jojo Tsimane Mokirisi, and delivered the story of a gleeful femme who encounters menacing characters during a moonlit night. The tale develops into a masterful dark traditional story, incorporating themes of innocence, corruption and tragedy.
The story is advertised as a fairy-tale, and this may stem from its happy conclusion, despite its tragic nature.
Synopsis, as interpreted
The story is introduced by a poetic monologue expressing the frustration evil encounters in the world. The poetry, delivered by local leading light Kwena Peu, narrates the emergence of evil under the guise of a red moon.
Following this, Peu summons a group of four contemporary dancers, who embody evil through most of the production. They tear off their chains and escape into the moonlit world, intending to conquer good. The moon shines red.
Rising against them are two dancers who represent both an active and passive resistance to that evil. Motlatsi Moeketsi Khotle, who plays a spiritual guardian entity, delivers a consistently remarkable performance through his swift and vigorous interpretive dance.
In contrast to both the aggressive resistance and the malicious quartet itself, a joyful femme (the equivalent of a princess), is introduced as the primary protagonist in the tale. Here, Kamara pitches the idea that just the nature of being good is challenging to the prospect of evil. She and her horse, portrayed by skilled puppeteer, Lawrence Mongalo, engage cheerfully under a transformed moon, which shines blue.
This theme of the threat of passive good to evil is reinforced when the hostile characters finally confront the femme.
The production climaxes when the passive tensions between good and evil actively conflict. The outcome is disastrous for the femme, who is seemingly slain. However, the production concludes indecisively when the malicious dancers turn against the influence of the evil Peu and condemn him to return to his chains. They follow him to beneath the earth, returning to their hidden evil, instead of conquering the world above.
The title, Kamara, refers to “a mystical horse that stampedes to [the will of people].”
The day the horse was conceived, the moon in the sky transformed to blue, suggesting that good had prevailed. The title therefore also refers to the moonlight. In fact, the moon is present throughout the story. It shines red initially under the influence of an emerging evil. Following the introduction of elements of good, the moon is transformed to a luminous blue.
Themoon is therefore aware of the existence of both good and evil, and reveals their conflict to the audience. However, it is powerless to influence either and, similar to the audience, is only able to observe their conflict unfold.
The introduction reveals the motive that informs the progression in the production. Peu’s poetry offers the only spoken words on-stage. So the audience relies on him for the verbal development of the story. He discloses initially that “the sky was never foreign to my kind”, lamenting how the heavens favour good over evil.
He also believes that people are foolish for choosing good, referring to the “brittle beliefs of man, a trivial justice blinding them from true power; absolute power!”
In his view, embracing evil is necessary for dominance.
Finally, he states that he has been limited from power because of “a little girl and a horse”, confirming them to be the reason that he lies chained. The introduction ends when we are informed of the evil character’s plan. He intends to slay the femme and introduce evil to the world, stating that “we await the red moon now.”
As expected, the villain succeeds in his plan and slays the femme.
However, under the influence of the spiritual guardian, the hostile dancers opt to force the villain to return to his chains.
Thisdelivers a powerful revelation in the production. Despite the death of the femme, good maintained its suppression of evil. It suggests that good itself and not the people that represent it will defeat evil.
At times, the story’s intentions were tough to grasp, and the flow of the storyline was interrupted by the decision to employ multiple artforms, which could have caused confusion. However, the fluidity of the different artforms merged to create a coherent narrative.
Kamara could be described as a local interpretation of the universal conflict of good and evil. The production employs common and problematic character archetypes and tropes. Notably, the femme is vulnerable and innocent, while the villain is masculine.
The choreography of dance often mixes local interpretations of contemporary dance with established Western technique. Moreover, it interprets characters such as princesses and wizards locally.
However, one would hope that the play could assume an identity separate from existing Western narratives. The trope of blue moonlight representing good was also recently explored in the Hollywood sensation, Moonlight, where the film’s central significance claims that in moonlight, black boys shine blue. However, the production is far from a derivative. It is in its own right creative mastery.
The play also makes strong use of an audiovisual experience to reinforce its themes. From the onset, the dark undertones of the production are evident. For its duration, the stage is dimly lit, the music is menacing and the characters brilliantly portray frightful evil. As suggested by the title, this darkness is challenged solely by the mystical horse and the femme, which create a bright shining moon.
The audio experience is also limited. Apart from the poet, all characters were mute. The production’s primary audio were instrumentals guiding both the on-stage choreography and the emotional development of the play.
Altogether, Kamara’s tropes are familiar and common. However, it is well interpreted for local contexts. Importantly, the production’s themes are effectively delivered through varying artforms and audiovisual technique.
It is undeniable that the classical arts are dying. Young art enthusiasts, who are responsible for giving life to any local creative activity, are more interested in modern means of telling stories. So, the death of ballet, contemporary dance, poetry and puppetry can be saved by adapting these artforms. Kamara, being a product of the HATCH incubator programme by the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State (PACOFS), is a powerful step towards reviving these arts.
Tshiamo Malatji hosts CUT Parliament on CUT FM, and is the co-founder of Bloem Youth Poetry Slam.