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Farber's doves rise to the challenge

Paige Newmark

Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise
Directed and written by Yael Farber
In collaboration with the cast: Tshallo Chokwe, France Conradie, Bongeka Mpongwana, Philip "Tipo" Tindisa, and Jabulile Tshabalala.
Lighting Designer: Tim Boyd
Production/Stage Manager: Peter Mokgosi
Production co-ordinator in South Africa: Leigh Colombick
Oxford Playhouse Producer: Tish Francis

Amajuba is pure story-telling theatre at its best. Based on the lives of the cast members, it weaves their stories into a simple and heartfelt ninety minutes of magic.

The play is at once very particular to the South African experience and universal in its appeal. As the five actors each tell extraordinary tales of living in various townships, and the anguish brought about by Apartheid, the audience are drawn into the tremendous hardship and trauma suffered.

The testimonies are told in a multiplicity of African languages, which boldly reflects the multi-cultural and multi-racial experience of living in South Africa. For an English-speaking audience the language differences are hard to distinguish, and in turn the connotations of telling a story in Afrikaans versus Tswana (for example) are likewise lost.

Nevertheless, the seamless intertwining of languages is brought across with tremendous verve. Indeed, Farber has chosen to present more of the play in English during the English tour than in the production I first saw in Grahamstown.

Each story is more harrowing than the last: they range across the gamut of human experience. Family, death, and violence are recurring themes, but told as specific narratives relating to specific people. Such a particularisation means that our hearts are quickly won over by characters onstage. Knowing, as we do, that the play is based on the actual lives of the cast makes it more real and unbearably poignant.

I could not help thinking that the play is a microcosm of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with its recording the testimonies of the past in order to provide lessons for the future. The ruthless pain and suffering has been slightly sanitised for the British audience: the appalling rape scene I saw when it originally played in South Africa is now gone. Whether this is a concession to our sensibilities or the more disturbing fact that audiences laughed in Grahamstown is unclear. Personally, I was more shaken by the audience's response than the actual scene.

The relentless wheel of rising hope, dashed by repeated tragedy, is not the totality of the piece. The humour is superbly portrayed in the wonderful range of multiple characters that each of the cast members plays: they throw themselves into each part with absolute commitment. Their physical dexterity is both utterly amazing and totally convincing - whether as township soccer players miming their ball skills, terrifying gangsters sexually threatening a girl on the street, innocent children, or shuffling old men and women.

To single any actor's performance out would be unfair since they all show an outstanding level of skill that constantly challenges us to use our mind's eye in recreating people and places. This style of performance is used in much the same way as in the Irish hit play Stones in his Pockets or in the work of Andrew Buckland, South Africa's most brilliant physical theatre-artist.

The dance and a capella songs with which the piece is interspersed, evoke a remarkably African feel. Often funny, sometimes protesting, each time the songs are very moving.

While Tim Boyd deserves credit for his subtle lighting, which manages to be atmospheric without being intrusive, the key player of Amajuba is undoubtedly Yael Farber. Her ability to bring out the best in her company members deserves abundant kudos. Even more so than with SeZar, her previous production to tour the UK, with Amajuba she has accomplished a remarkable theatrical feat.

A joy to watch. Highly recommended.

Amajuba begins a national tour of the United Kingdom, which runs from June to November 2004.

LitNet: 20 July 2004

boontoe / to the top

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