I don’t always “like” Mamela Nyamza’s work. It often makes me acutely uncomfortable. Phuma-Langa falls into this category. I did “love” it though and recommend that you go to see it tonight (15 September) or tomorrow night (16 September).
The audience moves into the dance space to find the six dancers from the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collective busy donning their “costumes”, already a play on words for in South Africa, “costumes” are swimming attire. These comprise orange armbands, black bathing caps and a variety of swimming pool piping, plastic swimming rings and brightly coloured, mismatched, striped socks with white canvas shoes. The costuming is important because I know, both from the title and from having interviewed Nyamza before the production, that the bright symmetrical patterns of the Ndebele people, made world famous by Esther Mahlangu, are being referenced.
The dance work commences in silence as the six dancers use their plastic rifles as “white sticks” for the blind. They feel their way around the dance space, occasionally intruding into the audience. A piece of chalk taped to the rifle marks their journeys. They draw on the walls too.
The music commences and we are subjected to Bok van Blerk’s De La Rey song which grabbed so much attention in the Afrikaans-speaking community about a decade ago. The song was controversial at the time, dividing the left and right wing Afrikaners sharply. It references a Boer War General, Koos de la Rey, a charismatic leader and skilled warrior. I am reminded that many of the Boer War battles were fought in the then Eastern Transvaal, and the Ndebele people fought on both sides of those battles, largely unaccounted for the recorded history, but hugely abused by both sides, particularly the English. I further consider the plea for a leader to rise up and lead the Boer/Afrikaner/rudderless people. In the light of the current weak and corrupt leadership the plea takes on a national dimension. I remind myself that this is about the loss of cultural treasures. The movements in front of me grow more grotesque with every passing minute as the dancers become “spastic” eventually huddling into one ball of pulsing, twisting, agonised flesh. As I said in my opening paragraph, this is not comfortable stuff to watch.
The “spastic” continues as each of the dancers mangles his or her own name. The reality is that with eleven official languages, some of the more difficult names are often mispronounced, and the very title of this work is a play on the common mispronunciation of “Mpumalanga” to “Mapumalanga”. The name/identity theme is not new. I have seen it before from the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative, most recently, I think at the 2017 Dance Umbrella. Nyamza doesn’t belabour this section.
It is clear that we are being subjected to the kind of theatre of the absurd that Robyn Orlin draws on her works. This is not Robyn Orlin though, it is Mamela Nyamza’s unique voice. The movements are controlled and they are impressive in their technical difficulty as they “drill” with their rifles balanced on their heads as women balance heavy loads on theirs as they go about their daily work. As the work progresses, the images of the battlefield created by Nyamza become increasingly strident. Various bits of the costumes have come adrift and fallen to the floor. Usually when this happens one of the dancers will kick the offending item to the side. Not in this work. The offending items lie on the battlefield like wounded and dead soldiers.
Cows mooing, birds tweeting, silence form the soundscape. The dancers sing the De la Rey song.
Eventually the work ends and the stage lights go off. The audience’s attention is drawn to the night lights of the Johannesburg skyline outside the 19th floor window of the performance venue. Did global urbanisation and one-worldism win the culture war?
Phuma-Langa was choreographed by Mamela Nyamza as a residency project with the Forgotten Angle Theatre Collective. Costumes and set were by Sasha Ehlers with lighting by Thabo Pule. The performers were Nicholas Aphane, Nomfundo Hlongwa, Francesca Matthys, Thulani Lathish Mgidi, Shawn Mothupi and Lorin Sookook. The work runs for two more performances at the Emakhaya Theatre, 19th Floor, University Corner Building (above the Wits Arts Museum), Braamfontein. There is safe parking in the building. Contact Neli on firstname.lastname@example.org to book as seating is limited.