If the primary function of art is to be a carrier of tradition and customs, then Kgolo Tlola Pitsa is the most powerful weapon in the hands of Batswana, writes Ace Moloi.
Facts and figures
For four days (22 – 25 November, 2017) the Andre Huguenet Theatre became a linguistic master-class, as the Kgolo Tlola Pitsa cast showcased the richness of the Setswana language to a responsive, curious and proud audience.
Kgolo is conceptualised by Karabo Kgokong, together with writer and director Martin Koboekae, and choreographed by Ntirelang Berman. Some of the known stage brands in the cast include Seputla Sebogodi, Peter Mashigo, Madge Kola and Kgaolatlhe Mathenyane, to mention a few, who mix with fresh talent to deliver an epic indigenous play.
As journalist Masego Panyane writes elsewhere: “The production as a whole gives the audience a solid storyline to follow, with trials, tribulations and many laughs along the way.”
A battle of civilisations
The musical is set in the 40s, an era in which the conflict between uncultured and cultured civilisations, best represented by the seemingly irreconcilable poles of big city life versus rural methods, was becoming too heated to contain.
To depict this friction, the play kicks off in a Vergenoeg-located shebeen, near Kimberley, Northern Cape. The drinking hole is run by a Coloured woman by the name of Elsie (Gaoimelwe Mokgakala), who happens to be in a relationship with a Motswana man – Oganne (Ontiretse Manyetsa). Oganne moved to Vergenoeg from his rural home, and due to a disobedience of certain customs, plunges his family in a spiritual crisis.
Itself – this inter-racial love – is symptomatic of evolving times and changing preferences, although initially the script tells it as one of the signs of losing the meaning of culture.
The costume too is of our grandfather’s times, and keywords such as telegram illuminate the setting. As if this itinerary is insufficient, the production’s Sophiatown jive choreography is reminiscent of “our times”, as men whose hearts are on a timer would say.
Kgolo’s narrative explores the question of clan leadership and generational succession, with tradition as the pivot around which chosenness is determined.
Anybody who disrespects family customs is unfit to rule, and so the young urbanised man has to prove his preparedness to lead by observing certain cleansing and appeasement rituals.
Basically, it matters not how well-versed in the language of development you are, you must stay rooted – stay woke.
Coloured with stereotypes
Before going far, this inter-racial relationship between the two love butterflies – like all affairs of its kind – suffers the irate rebuke of elders who are adamant that a Coloured, morwa, will never set foot on their home soil, let alone as a daughter-in-law.
With this romantic establishment, I gather the intention of the script was to show the ethnic bias of the past, and eventually wipe it off, while at the same time pushing the agenda of acceptance, romantic autonomy and diversity.
In the play, a hostile relational beginning between the Coloured lover of a Motswana man and his family is ultimately replaced by a shared family identity.
Though this is indeed a beautiful tale, I fault the play on the accentuation of the stereotype that Coloured women are passionately irrational, hyper-confrontational and unnecessarily loud.
Of course, a stereotype is a truth that nonetheless lacks nuance. So the point is not whether or not the depiction is truthful, but whether it is the place of art to entertain the stereotype in the first place.
I think I mainly have a problem with the fact that there’s not much effort in the script to correct the stereotype and prejudice against the Coloured community.
Every funny, derogatory and unsettling phrase employed in the play to describe Elsie goes verbally unchallenged. No recourse unfolds within the script itself, in case any member of the audience interprets the spoken words as the truth that deepens their prejudices against Coloureds.
In this case, especially as it relates to my grief, I’d have appreciated it if part of the play was dedicated to addressing these stereotypes, and not just throw the interpretively silent ball in our courts to make of it whatever we want.
A celebration of language
The sharpest weapon in the hands of Kgolo is the purity of the Setswana language. Anyone with an interest in African languages definitely enjoyed the show, regardless of their Setswana literacy. This is because performers succeeded in acting out meaning not only through non-verbal speech, but also through spoken cues such as volume, pace and emphasis, to make it easy for an outsider to follow the story.
Language is deeper than intonation. It includes non-verbal cues that surround speech with context for ease of interpretation. Language is both drama and dramatic.
It’s a great achievement of decoloniality that this production was staged. It showed us that with our languages nothing is impossible. We can do all things through the mother tongue that equips us with creative wordplay, sublime candour and crafty euphemism.
Pula e ye tla: rain is upon us
Conceptualised by Karabo Kgokong and written and directed by Martin Koboekae, Kgolo symbolises the gathering of rain-pregnant clouds in a season of dry despair. As the musical’s theme song by the amazingly sounding and soulfully powerful band announces, “E ye tla pula. Pula e ye tla.”
It will rain and wet the land, so that more indigenous plays of Kgolo’s brilliance can mushroom all over the country.
It will be a rain that waters the fields of talent, significantly to produce more of the kind of Seputla Sebogodi and Peter Mashigo who will provide the needed artistic equilibrium between the young and the old.
To celebrate in anticipation of the rain, let us till the ground with our feet, bend our knees at shin-length, clap our hands and shake what we have with the freedom Sarah Baartman never had, as we present unto the world an African drill of joy.
Ace Moloi is the Editor of ART STATE. Follow him on Twitter: @Ace_Moloi