REVIEW

Laudable, Palatable, Regrettable – Inside Pacofs’ August Shows

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The prohibition is over, the doors of culture are open, and the lights are back on at the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State. ART STATE publisher Mpho Matsitle spent six interesting nights there and chooses to kiss and tell.

The president had the presence of mind, to the nation’s collective relief, to open up the country lest the state had to yet again imagine an insurrection. And with that a whole lot of opportunities presented themselves. However, level three lockdown kept the draconian curfew of 9pm and an indoor gathering limit of one hundred people in place. In this milieu, theatres were once again allowed to operate. In a pleasant surprise, the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State (Pacofs) latched on to this opportunity.

The curfew and occupancy limit, in all honesty, could not have been a factor for the institution. In the old normal, hardly did a hundred people ever swamp its oft-used three-hundred seat Andre Huguenet Theatre, and shows are usually done and dusted way before 9pm. Thus, one may say, all things being equal, the institution was in a good space to continue business as usual. However, as if the three-night runs of the old normal were not bad enough, Pacofs took the bizarre decision of hosting its late winter season shows for one night only. Given the quality of some of the shows, a couple of which the author simply walked out of halfway through, this decision may have been in the best interest of theatre.

The key advantage of a one-night stand is its ephemeral nature that makes it easier to later romanticize the encounter. A one-night stand is a moment of total abandon, of immense intoxication. It is a situation in which, per the novelist Kundera, “a person … dispossessed of everything, then a tiny little woman he hardly knows, embraced in puddles of beer, becomes a whole universe”. After a month of tough lockdown and prohibition, Pacofs’ one-night stands, especially given that the theatre’s bar is finally back in operation, could’ve become a whole universe. But no such luck. Comrades did not struggle to suffer, and the pandemic presents a new possibility to eat: livestreaming. All the shows have been immortalized on the internet – albeit behind a paywall. Hence when the editor called to demand what’s due to Caesar, the author found that the usual one-night stand excuse of “I can barely remember her name” wouldn’t fly.

Once A Woman

The first of the one-night stands was a return of writer Rebaone Marumo and director Seipone Nkoadipo’s Once A Woman to the Free State at the tail-end of the first week of August. Ka rumo ja ntlha moloi, the play was a welcomed break from the monotony of bo take it or leave it and endless videoconferencing. This despite the shortcomings already canvassed in these pages. Just the mere fact of being in the theatre, with familiar faces, made the night special.

My Vagina Was Not Buried With Him

Having whet our appetites, six days later Pacofs brought out the big guns and invited poet and theatre practitioner Napo Masheane to present the wildly successful choreopoem, My Vagina Was Not Buried with Him, to her home province’s audience. As has been the case all over the country, the show was sold out. The one-person show, in which Napo played various characters, confronts us as a widow’s struggle to define herself and her sexuality outside of her late husband’s and his family’s control. This then leads to incisive and broader questions around the imprisonment of female sexuality to the power of men.

Ever so carefully, Napo deftly leads us to an understanding of how these generally accepted principles – casually called culture and tradition – result in the disastrous rape and murder of women we are all supposedly against. Although entertaining and humorous at turns, Napo treads carefully to not trivialise the issues at the core of the play, nor does the play include scenes which may be triggering just to drive the message home. It is a delicate balance that many fail to master.

A meeting of the women. Source: Once A Woman Musical Facebook page.

Night With The Stars

One would obviously not necessarily expect a music concert to run multiple nights, yet – especially given that the concert was hot on the heels of Napo’s brilliance the previous night – this was by some margin the most regrettable of the one-night stands. One of those that induce the ‘what have we done!?’ post-cum existential crisis. To its credit, at least one attendee found it to be “very entertaining” as a “train smash.” To add insult to injury, the show is billed as a tribute to the late Tshepo Tshola. Apart from the ever-golden S’nazo and the trio of back-up vocalists, the singers – a word used quite lightly in the context of the show – were very far removed from spectacular. Ntlaks The Journey’s performance in particular – from the garments, walking stick to the exaggerated mannerisms – felt like a cheap Las Vegas Elvis-esque pantomime of Tshepo Tshola. To pay tribute to an artist of the calibre and impact of the Village Pope, no gimmicks nor impersonation are needed, but artists who truly seek to understand the work and context of the legend. We ought to do better in honouring our gods!

Thabeng

In for the penny, in for the pound – seems to have been the motif for the descent to the banal. Brothers Thabo (choreographer) and Lebohang Moroe (director) presented a ‘choreopoetry piece about a young boy’s journey into manhood’ four days later, unimaginatively titled Thabeng. Dance is poetry, it is an artform difficult to pin down exactly what it is, but even the uninitiated can almost always tell what it is not. Thabeng is such a negative confirmation. There was a lot of hither and thither, plenty of rolling on the floor at the slightest provocation, the performers gyrated with every word they spoke – but none of it had nary an ounce of poetry in it. None of it stirred the soul.

At the heart of the story is the common (dare I say long resolved) conflict between two spiritual regimes: Badimo and Christianity. The mother of the boy, who presents a brand of Christianity inexplicably unwilling to adapt to the local condition as it has everywhere else, is ironically a member of the so-called African Traditional Churches, a movement in which the conflict the play rests upon resolves itself. Thabeng does very little to shine new light to this conflict, no does it even attempt to attend to the irony present in its grammar. At best, it is a caricature of Khauhelo Maikhi’s Lesedi, itself a bad caricature of Lebo Leisa’s Paleho.

Tlhobohanong

Despite the patient and brilliant work of professors Kopano Ratele and Tommy J Curry, masculinity studies is still not a thing in this here republic. It is as if Thabiso Rammala’s Tau has never graced the Pacofs stage. Tlhobohanong, also a choreopoem about Sesotho initiation rites into manhood, is just as silent as Thabeng on the salient points raised within the grammar of its chosen subject. It is an uncritical reflection on culture, religion, masculinity and manhood. The themes the play nervously scurries past are a treasure trove for both writers and directors, but these treasures are completely given a wide berth. To its credit though, the choreography by Motlatsi Moeketsi Khotle – like Thabo Moroe also an alumni of Moving Into Dance Mophatong – was quite inspired.

Napo o gana nyaang ya banyana! Source: Napo Masheane Facebook

Tau Di Mesana

When the final production of the month came by, the author had already resigned themself to yet another “this too won’t end well” tragic farce. Generally being a sadomasochist, I dragged eight of my friends along, determined not to suffer alone. The group discount was equally an appealing factor. The production, conceptualised and directed by Thabiso Montse, better known as Damo Mokgatla, was misbilled as ‘Thandiwe Radebe featuring Abafazi Bengoma’. One expected it to be a one-woman spoken word show with the band acting as canvass. Expectations that were fortunately thwarted, but not soon enough. As it turned out, Thandi was, for all intents and purposes, a curtain raiser, selelekela. Her opening soliloquy dragged on for about a quarter-hour before the all-women percussion band took to stage. And what a delight were Abafazi Bengoma!

In the jazz tradition of democracy and individual excellence, the band members oscillated between the different instruments – voice, drums, marimba and body – as they took us through the women-leaning South African songbook. Their repertoire included classics from Vicky Sampson, Letta Mbulu, Miriam Makeba, and Zahara. Spontaneous applause erupted after each song and dance. And one wouldn’t hesitate to bet their crypto wallet that had the show taken place in less restricting setting than a theatre, the lively audience would have opened a dancefloor and joined in the beauty created by these dexterous artists.

This Way I Salute You, Pacofs!

We should pause to take note – and boy must we applaud! – Pacofs for such a jam packed month. Six shows – two laudable, two palatable, two regrettable – is a feat that is well appreciated. The Gig Guide suggests that August was no fluke, September’s one-night stand list is not thin either. It seems barring imagined coup d’états or another wave of infections, the lights will stay on at Pacofs, and we can once again boldly proclaim that #ArtLivesHere!

FEATURED IMAGE: And the women and their drums. Source: Abafazi Bengoma Facebook page.

Mpho Matsitle’s essay “Violence: The Thread That Ties Our Big Unhappy Family” has been published in Culture Review’s The Lives Of Black Folk

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