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More than mere mumbo jumbo

Vicky Davis reviewed a performance of iMumbo Jumbo at Grahamstown. For a foreigner’s view we append the review of Jason Best, published in the London theatre weekly The Stage, of a performance of the same show as part of the Barbican International Theatre Events (BITE: 03) season, writes Jean Meiring.


Bailey gives us a true African theatrical experience

Vicky Davis

iMumbo Jumbo: The Days of Miracle and Wonder
Written and directed by Brett Bailey
Performed by The Third World Bunfight.

In his book The Plays of Miracle and Wonder writer and director Brett Bailey describes iMumbo Jumbo as

a dramatization of the intrepid, sacred and quixotic 1996 quest of Chief Nicholas Tilana Gcaleka (sangoma, priest, liquor salesman, guru) to retrieve the head of his ancestor, King Hintsa kaPhalo — Paramount Chief of the amaXhosa nation, killed by a colonial posse in 1836 — and thereby to restore peace to his country which Hintsa’s Hell Spirit is ravaging. Performed by sangomas, hill tribes, clergy, choirs, media hounds and other animals.

Recently staged at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and at the Barbican Theatre in London and moving to the Baxter in Cape Town, iMumbo Jumbo is an experience.

It is a play about the explosion that occurs when traditionalism meets Westernisation in a multi-cultural society — in true Brett Bailey style. Bailey, who wrote and directed the show, is backed by his non-profit organisation, The Third World Bunfight, a theatre company consisting of a troupe of actors from the townships and rural areas of South Africa. In 2001 he won the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year Award for drama and is renowned for successful plays such as Big Dada, iPi Zombie and The Prophet.

iMumbo Jumbo is an embodiment of the recipe for his work:

take township traditions and styles, throw them in the blender with rural performance and ceremony, black evangelism, a handful of Western avant-garde and a dash of showbiz, and flick the switch.

It is the strange tale of a Xhosa chief travelling all the way to Scotland to retrieve the skull of his ancestor in order to satisfy the Hurricane Spirit that is causing crime and murder among the Xhosa people. But when forensic specialists investigate the skull, they find it actually belonged to a Caucasian woman. The Xhosa royalty dismissed him as a fraud.

The script is created from interviews Bailey recorded with Gcaleka at his home in the Cape Town township of Nyanga East. It is a ritualistic pantomime with a rich performance quality that hovers between reality and dream, the unconscious and rational thought.

The actors maintain an extremely high level of energy: they dance, sing, fall in and out of trance and interact directly with the audience; they are greeted and individually blessed by the Rev Mzwandile Nzulwana.

The set is true African theatre, with actors remaining on stage throughout and performing in the round, enticing and involving the audience. It is humorous entertainment free of the inhibitions of Western theatre: there are even two live chickens to add to the local feel of the performance.

iMumbo Jumbo addresses the growing problem of what happens when our materialistic reality is confronted with traditional spiritualism. Bailey explains:

It’s these clashes of culture, symbols, beliefs, historical eras which you see all over Africa that always delight me: the goats that amble across from the location into town to graze on the marigolds planted by the municipality on the traffic islands, the women hurrying along the footpaths of rural valleys with newly charged car batteries on their heads to hook up to their portables so that they can catch The Bold and the Beautiful, the barefoot black Christians dancing around a flaming chicken sacrifice, the squalid shacklands that line the road traversed by tourists in Mercs from Cape Town International Airport to the pleasure domes of the city: all this impurity, these minglings, these collisions. This is the Africa of today. Europe’s so preppy and up its own arse in comparison, and the “real African experience” contrived for its tourism is just a prissy charade for their romantic fantasies.

For a true African experience, devoid of Struggle sentiment or thoughts of the TRC, do not miss iMumbo Jumbo.

iMumbo Jumbo plays at the Baxter Theatre from 23 July to 9 August 2003.

Book at Computicket.


A London view

Jason Best, in The Stage, 17 July 2003

“You think you are watching a drama show,” declares a member of South African theatrical troupe Third World Bunfight at the start of their vibrant production iMumbo Jumbo. Then he enlightens the Barbican audience. “We are doing much bigger work here.”

Written and directed by Brett Bailey, iMumbo Jumbo is a riot of singing, dancing and colourful spectacle. But the 21-strong company is not simply putting on a show; its members are enacting a dramatic ritual with a deep spiritual purpose.

In song, dance and knockabout pantomime, they tell the true story of a quest undertaken in 1996 by Chief Nicholas Tilana Gcaleka, a Xhosa tribal healer or sangoma, to retrieve the skull of an ancestor killed by British troops in 1836.

Visited in a dream by the Hurricane Spirit, a spiritual black mamba, Gcaleka discovers that the dead chief’s angry spirit must be placated if the violent ills of post-apartheid South Africa are to be cured. Gcaleka’s mission takes him to Scotland, where he is trailed by a Sky TV crew — comically represented on stage by performers wearing head-dresses in the form of TV cameras. Prompted by another dream, he finds a skull in a forest near Inverness and returns home in triumph, only for scientists to declare that the head in question belonged to a Caucasian woman.

By the lights of Western rationalism, Gcaleka’s quest was a failure, but Bailey and his company are interested in exploring symbolic, mythic and spiritual truths rather than reductionist logic. And their show acts out its own thesis — iMumbo Jumbo may lack dramatic coherence, but even within the confines of the Barbican Theatre, it offers an intense and uplifting communal experience.

Visit BITE: 03 at www.barbican.org.uk/bite/"


A footnote ...

... from the Oxford English Dictionary


mumbo-jumbo, n.

I. Simple uses.

1. a. A god or spirit said to have been worshipped by certain West African peoples; a representation of this; an idol. Now hist.

1738 F. MOORE Trav. Inland Parts Afr. 40 A dreadful Bugbear to the Women, call’d Mumbo-Jumbo, which is what keeps the Women in awe. 1738 F. MOORE Trav. Inland Parts Afr. 116 At Night, I was visited by a Mumbo Jumbo, an Idol, which is among the Mundingoes a kind of cunning Mystery... This is a Thing invented by the Men to keep their Wives in awe. 1799 M. PARK Trav. Afr. (ed. 2) iv. 39 A sort of masquerade habit..which I was told..belonged to Mumbo Jumbo. This is a strange bugbear..much employed by the Pagan natives in keeping their women in subjection. 1837 T. HOOD Ode R. Wilson xxiv, You might have been High Priest to Mumbo-Jumbo. 1873 C. G. LELAND Egyptian Sketch-bk. 83 The Savage, suggestive of wild African Mumbo-Jumbo,..will have vanished. 1925 G. K. CHESTERTON Everlasting Man I. iii. 69 Was a totem a thing like the British lion or a thing like the British bulldog? Was the worship of a totem like the feeling of niggers about Mumbo Jumbo, or of children about Jumbo? 1992 F. MCLYNN Hearts of Darkness III. xi. 227 The name of the most powerful one worshipped in West Africa was Mumbo Jumbo.

b. In extended use: an object of superstitious awe or blind veneration. Obs.

1773 J. ROBERTSON Poems 130 Knaves and fools paint the Almighty A Mumbo Jumbo, to affright ye. 1850 R. W. EMERSON Representative Men vii. 261 The ambitious and mercenary bring their last new mumbo-jumbo, whether tariff, Texas, railroad, Romanism, mesmerism, or California. 1876 ‘G. ELIOT’ Daniel Deronda II. IV. xxviii. 195 The name of Mompert had become a sort of Mumbo-jumbo. 1892 Atlantic Monthly Feb. 260/2 He does not undervalue the use of party, but he refuses to surrender his principles to party, or to make a Mumbo Jumbo of it.

2. colloq. Obscure or meaningless language or ritual; jargon intended to impress or mystify; nonsense.

1738 F. MOORE Trav. Inland Parts Afr. 40 A cant language  ... call’d Mumbo-Jumbo. 1858 Sat. Rev. 31 July 103 The old Mumbo Jumbo of ‘unchristianizing the Legislature’ must not be consigned to the eternal limbo..without a parting exsufflation. 1870 L. M. ALCOTT Let. 29 June in E. D. Cheney L. M. Alcott (1889) ix. 238 We..went to vespers in the old church, where we saw a good deal of mumbo-jumbo by red, purple, and yellow priests. 1930 V. SACKVILLE-WEST Edwardians vii. 328 Sebastian ... swore loudly that nothing would induce him to take part in the mumbo-jumbo of the imminent Coronation. 1952 A. GRIMBLE Pattern of Islands viii. 165 The moon was above all constraint of sorcery’s mumbo-jumbo. 1964 E. BAKER Fine Madness x. 97 Never mind the technical mumbo-jumbo. All we want is a simple yes or no. 1999 J. M. COETZEE Disgrace (2000) x. 84 Bev Shaw, not a veterinarian but a priestess, full of New Age mumbo jumbo.

Julie 2003

boontoe / to the top


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