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Church not wholly well lit

Roshan Sewpersad

Church Full of Light, Kereke ya Lesedi

Written by Guy Willoughby
Directed by Fred Abrahamse
Set and lighting by Patrick Curtis
Starring Thoko Ntshinga, Dumisani-Sizwe Mbebe, Roger Dwyer, Guy Willoughby and Anthea Thompson
Baxter Theatre Centre
June and July 2004.

Church Full of Light, winner of the audience vote for best play at the PANSA Festival Reading of New Writing, has many things to commend it: an accomplished director, cast and crew. It also has a fantastic premise.

Miriam Mokoena (Thoko Ntshinga), a domestic worker with more than 50 years' service under her apron, inherits the bulk of her wealthy employer's estate and is moved to spend her inheritance building a church in her local village in Limpopo.

Aliza Tarrowgate (Anthea Thompson), daughter of the deceased, Dr Zelig, and now resident of Toronto, arrives to contest the will, aided by the oily lawyer Jose Gonsalves (Guy Willoughby).

Thomas (Dumisani-Sizwe Mbebe), Miriam's westernised son, an architect, to whom Dr Zelig had been a benefactor, sees the potential career benefits in creating such an edifice for his mother himself.

Soon the case makes headlines and politicians want a say - and a piece of the pie too. Then there are some monologues and the inevitable confrontation between Aliza and the Mokoenas and their lawyer Henry Falmouth (Roger Dwyer), but by that time I'd lost sympathy with all of the characters.

Though the acting was of a fair quality, there were an inordinate number of fluffed lines from all actors and this gave the impression that the play was under-rehearsed.

Ntshinga gives an okay performance as a maid and matriarch of a Saxonwold household, who clings to the beliefs of her traditional African Church of Jesus. She is meant to be a complex character, but Ntshinga doesn't allow us a glimpse of a nuanced, female personality. In fact, her scenes in Sotho are unspontaneous and she looks smug most of the time.

Mbebe as the son (a meaty role) unfortunately slips into declaiming mode by the second half. It is a clever device, albeit unsurprising, to explore his psychology, built around an oedipal scenario, as a series of taped comments made to his therapist.

At this point it is worth mentioning that the best part of the production is the set. Representing the architectural plans for the church, its organic shape cocoons the play: an edifice that responds to its environment and an environment sympathetic to it. There are also Greek-styled granite plinths sometimes used by the actors. This set is clever and creative and serves as a leitmotiv for the play: the construction of a new society, new identities, new architecture, new texts.

Anthea Thompson, a multi-talented actress, does tend to dominate the stage. She is indeed dominant in her role. Unfortunately she doesn't portray vulnerability very well, nor did she put on a Toronto-inflected accent, opting rather for something like Bellville meets Sandton.

Willoughby and Dwyer give good performances as the lawyers. Willoughby has some comedic lines, which would, however, have been more successful had he been less dry, or perhaps drier. The courtroom scenes are also slightly strange, for while the audience is meant to be the judge, both actors focus in curious mid-distance, somewhere above the audience's heads.

Church Full of Light is new play made up of interesting parts. Unfortunately the whole does not add up fluently. Certain parts go on for far too long, while others that should have been fleshed out are given only fleeting treatment.

The programme notes mention that the PANSA panel could not tell if the play was written by a black or white person. This play ultimately ends by reconstructing a new South African stage.

LitNet: 23 June 2004

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