ArtSpoken & Reviews

Sizwe Banzi is Indeed Alive!

Marianthe Kaldelis
07/09/2012 08:51:53

Marianthe Kaldelis: Sizwe Banzi is Alive is a play steering dangerously towards becoming a South African classic, just like the play that inspired it.

Sizwe Banzi is Dead was the inspiration for director/co-writer Eliot Moleba’s brave venture when he pondered the effect of silence – all those voices who were never heard, all the names that died without ever telling their story. With the energetic help of Masiza Mbali and Simpho Mathenjwa, Moleba explores the journey of Wiseman, a 23 year-old searching for his vanished grandfather.

In this story there are minimal and multifunctional props, mime, numerous interchanged characters, intense physical characterisation; everything one expects from a play that grew out of a genre that produced the likes of Woza Albert! Yet this play is as undoubtedly new as the faces performing it. As a person regularly frustrated by the often ‘stuck-in-the-past’ nature of South African theatre, I was so excited to see beautifully familiar scenes of a modern South Africa. To draw me further in, there was no rehashing of the past, as if the characters’ lives were stuck in the puddle of the 1980s, simply the coming-to-terms with its personal effects on the characters.

In a Brighton old age home we meet a photographer, Stix, who captures the images of the old for the young to one day see and remember, so as not to lose any voices, any stories. One particular photographic subject is Joseph, who on the eve of his 73rd birthday is faced with his past in the tenacious form of young Wiseman, searching for his grandfather whose trail ends with Joseph.

The conversations between Wiseman, Joseph, and Joseph’s equally geriatric friend (who, by the way, cheats at board games) are uproariously funny in the physical nuances of characters and their personalities. The ease and joy with which the actors interchange Xhosa and English doesn’t hurt the comedy either, although during the story of the longing and loss of Wiseman’s grandmother, the actors’ comedic caricaturing felt slightly irreverent. Visually the play delivers with some wonderful spatial use of the stage (aided by fantastic lighting design), with two scenes occurring at once, or a pause for two individual experiences of the same moment. The physicality and commitment of the actors is another visual spectacle to behold, although occasionally one does feel the need for more precision in the interchange of characters and for the consistency of the elderly physique, the actors’ youthful force occasionally bursting out.

Mbali’s vocal dexterity and Mathenjwa’s emotional commitment to the character of Wiseman deserve specific praise, although Wiseman’s youthfulness and anguish need to be more cohered – at times the two sides of his character seem very disparate. Yet even if there is some room for tightening things up the workshopped script deserves much praise for its flow and for some hilarious, and poignant, pay-offs of seemingly transitory information, the final scene being one such example.

After board games, nightmares, fables and photographs, the end of the play meets us in the dual form of a greeting and goodbye. The audience is invited to participate in this final moment that brings a powerful (and beautifully Xhosa) end to the play.

Despite the room for a few improvements, Sizwe Banzi is Alive has its course firmly set towards great things and comes highly recommended as a play to enjoy right now, and to watch as it grows in the future.

Sizwe Banzi is Alive is set to tour Cape Town from 12 - 28 July at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective as well as visit various local and township schools where the artists will both perform, and facilitate workshops. Sizwe Banzi is Alive will return to Johannesburg in September at the POP Art Theatre.

Marianthe Kaldelis
Actress / writer
072 738 2033