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Inkwenkwe is sensitive and intelligent student theatre

Deborah Seddon

Student theatre at the 2004 Grahamstown National Arts Festival
University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg
Written and directed by Mbo Mtshali
With Arifani Moyo, Phumla Majola, Jabu Shange and James Aitchinson

“Ngi ngu Luthando wa ka Mtimkhulu. I am a man.” Speaking these words, Luthando accepts by the rights of custom and lineage that he is no longer a boy, inkwenkwe, but a man.

This well-acted and quietly-understated play explores the complex issues concerning rights of passage in contemporary South Africa as the conflicts between modernity and cultural heritage make themselves apparent in the life of the young Luthando (Moyo). Like his father before him, he is expected to become a man according to Xhosa tradition, a custom we are told of as Luthando’s mother (Shange) recalls the event of her husband’s initiation before they were married. She speaks to her son as he grows in her belly, remembering how the entire homestead turned out to greet the returning men, her ululations of delight as her beloved appeared first, at the head of the group, leading the others in triumph.

Luthando’s father is deceased but looms large in his son’s life. The audience know of him only by what they are told by the other characters. The implication is that Luthando has a great deal to live up to. His father was an eminent figure in the community, a man of few words. He visited Luthando at his exclusive boarding school only once – to arrange his transition to manhood. As they sat together in the principal’s office, his father stated that in a month his driver Solomon would arrive with the car and take Luthando to a private clinic, where he would be circumcised and then handed over to the elders. He would then be returned to school by car. Two weeks, that was how long his father expected the entire process to take, and then his son would be a man. It was as simple as that, and not negotiable.

But for this young son of a wealthy Xhosa family the journey to manhood is by no means simple. He must reconcile the demands of his aggressively masculine private school education with his own individuality, deal with the silence surrounding his father’s mysterious death, and negotiate his mother’s barely contained yearning for a daughter-in-law with his own desire for his young male lover Trystan (Aitchinson).

The strength of this play lies in its minimalism: the four actors undertake all the roles and the scene changes seamlessly between past and present, myth and reality. To please his mother, and to live up to the ideal of his dead father, Luthando leads a double life. He conducts an affair with a young woman called Maria (Majola) while he lives with Trystan and, despite the damage it causes his relationship, he refuses to put an end to the deception.

The boys had also lived a double life at school: as they showered naked after sport they were allowed – encouraged in fact – to admit that some of their fellows were attractive, but they were not allowed to be attracted to them. The distinction, as Trystan explains, is slight but essential. It must be maintained. But this is a play that blurs the neat edges of conventional morality and it does so most successfully by introducing another, more ancient, story which adds a mythic dimension to the action.

Interspersed with Luthando’s history is the legendary tale of the sacred ibis told by means of puppetry and masks. The ibis (Moyo) encounters and falls in love, first with the beautiful marabou stork (Majola), and later, in secret liaisons, with the moon bird (Aitchinson). At first sight, the ibis wishes the marabou stork to become his betrothed, but she asks, as proof of his love, that he bring her the tail feather of the moon bird, a creature of legend seldom seen. He travels deep into the mountains and there, transformed by a spell at the side of a sacred pool, becomes a moon bird himself.

The moon birds are beautiful. They look, sound and feel the same; their love is the natural outcome of their first encounter, but every morning the ibis assumes his other shape and returns to the side of the marabou stork. As Luthando struggles to balance the double act of his young life, the puppetry comments on the sorrow of his situation, as night after night the ibis leaves the side of the marabou stork and flies to his beloved in the mountains. The deception and betrayal are finally revealed with catastrophic results. “It was your face I saw as I made love to Maria,” Luthando tells Trystan as his lover leaves him, “how is anyone supposed to understand that?”

The ibis pays dearly for his broken promise. He is attacked by the jilted stork, who follows him in secret to the mountains. His eyes weep lengths of scarlet ribbons. And as the ibis lies dying at the side of the mountain pool we learn how Luthando’s father died. The twist in the tale is not obvious, but intentionally left to the audience to work out. The play closes as Luthando finally opens his father’s box of papers: it is all he left behind. He is now a man and his mother feels he should have it. His horror is not only of discovery but also of recognition.

This play’s power lies in the slow, quiet build-up of two seemingly unrelated stories side by side. The puppetry allows entry into the realm of dream and emotion ? adding depth and resonance to the ordinary, everyday setting of the main action of the play. This play is ambitious, but gently persists and finally succeeds. It is encouraging to witness student drama which seeks its effect not by grand gestures but rather by the use of subtle undercurrents that explore the issues at hand with sensitivity and intelligence.


LitNet: 16 Julie 2004

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