Theatre is a wondrous medium. For its power to tell impactful stories in real time, there is a hallowed grace that comes with viewing well executed performance.
A select audience was treated to such an experience on Sunday 1st May 2022 as the company staging “An Afternoon of Theatre” took them on several emotional journeys and, unforgivingly, left everything on stage. Taking place at Maitisong Theatre in Gaborone, the production was the result of collaboration with South African organisation, Keep The Dream Alive Organisation.
The programme for the day featured a selection of five performance pieces by the Alexandra Theatre Company cast and one showcase by Tefo Paya. The South African performers were all alumni of a training programme facilitated by Keep the Dream Alive Organisation in collaboration with the theatre company based in the township of Alexandra near Johannesburg.
The organisation’s director, Moses D. Rasekele, is no stranger to the stage, the community or the institution, having served as the Managing Director of the theatre for a number of years prior to relinquishing the seat for a life of creation again. In his welcome remarks, the Director of Maitisong Theatre, Tefo Paya, noted the very nature of creation stating that the Setswana term for artists is badiragatsi, “people called to action.”
Opening the showcase, host Masiza Mbali informed the audience that the company had engaged performers from Botswana in a series of workshops the day before to impart skills, enable networking and encourage dialogue. Mbali formed one third of a triad of Dramatic Arts graduates from the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) – the other two being Paya and Rasekele. The relationships built through the esteemed institution have seen Rasekele showcase 12 productions in Botswana, Paya’s homeland, since 2016. This particular set of performances was born out of a museum tour project at The Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria which saw participants interrogate exhibition pieces and sites in order to use them as pretexts for their theatrical pieces.
The works showcased were themselves a tour de force of politics, beliefs, emotions, culture and the ephemeral nature of mortality. The linguistic agility of the cast, switching between English, Setswana, sePedi, isiXhosa, isiZulu, and Tshivenda was remarkable and reminded one of the diversity of cultures working to coexist in South Africa. ‘Black on White,” directed by Sanele Mzimela, opens with a song speaking about the struggle to make a living and the exploitation of many as mineworkers. The production jabbed at colonialism and corruption, all the while weaving in vibrant dances and melodic chants. In “Ditsebe,” directed by Archie Matsitela looking at rituals of self-preservation, the audience is challenged with the statement that “we maintain these traditions because they bring a sense of security”. The physically demanding piece saw the cast of six jumping on and off platforms, interlocking their bodies and dancing maniacally.
The visual artworks of Willem Boshoff served as the pretext for “Blind Spot,” directed by Matlakala Motaung, which looked at how language as a tool could be used for the greater good or the entrapment of people. The serpentine use of rattles highlighted the insidious maneuvering that education systems use to cause disassociations among African students from their cultures through language. In drawing parallels between the student riots of 16 June 1976 and the FeesMustFall movement of 2015, the harrowing reality of the plight of students of different generations is laid in plain sight. This was a noble prelude to “Iyasika,” directed by Masiza Mbali, which interrogated the constrictions of masculinity and those who suffer it. The repeated chants of a caged boy saying, “mpulelelng,” do nothing less than turn into a haunting sound as maternal and paternal figures continually force him to contort into his cage.
On the note of cultured violence, the closing offering from the company was “01 Untitled,” directed by Mpho Masilela. Masilela’s production didn’t skirt around the topic of femicide but rather turned it into a juggernaut tanker barreling through the silences that often plague gender-based violence conversations at all levels. Where male figures silenced the jovial, youthful expressions of young girls, they turned a blind eye to their suffering at the hands of men like them. This collective violence is unveiled when the names and ages of young girls and women whose lives were brutally ended are recited along with the circumstances of their demise. Perhaps the most poignant moment of this production was the statement, “How do you kill a rock?”, making reference to the slogan of the South African struggle for women’s rights.
In conversation with Rasekele, he states that the process of creating the works required the students “to study different forms of theatre, such as poor theatre, invisible theatre, and industrial theatre; and also learn singing and dancing, which takes a lot of effort”. Following their training, the students then “devised the works with their directors, so there were no scripts involved”, he added. His hope for the productions is for them to live beyond the festival they staged in Alexandra in October 2021 and to reach communities across SADC where they can be tools for community engagement.
Closing off the day was a new iteration of “Morwa,” directed by Warren Nebe. The play was initiated while Paya was studying at WITS under Nebe and the pair has continued to nurture it. For this performance, Paya’s recounting of stories of a young boy’s journey with the nuances of navigating gender binaries and taboos is underscored by the music of Thabang Hydro Molefe. The accessibility of the tales makes empathising with the protagonist easier for the audience without excusing them from questioning their own experiences of life from childhood to however old they are. The work is so impressive that it is set to travel to Germany and South Africa for festivals in a matter of weeks. However, in an effort to inspire dialogue locally, Paya is coordinating a national schools tour with the Botswana Schools Drama Association on a ‘sponsor a student’ basis, and the general public will get to watch the show at Maitisong on 25 May 2022.
It goes without saying that everyone was impressed by the works on displays the auditorium roared with applause when the final curtain closed. One can only hope that more theatre outings are on the cards for us in Botswana.