Animal metaphors lay bare the manipulation of democracy
Playwright, artist and academic Kgafela Oa Magogodi promotes the jackal to king of the jungle
He has travelled the world as a spoken word poet and musician, performing in big cities in Europe and the US.
Kgafela Oa Magogodi still performs abroad, but he is also an academic at the Wits School of Arts, a writer and increasingly a playwright who crafts and directs some of the most incisive and subversive pieces of theatre. As a musician, his sound is quite complex, difficult to categorise and therefore simply called folk punk. He combines African folk sound with exotic modern beats and lyrics mainly in his mother tongue Setswana.
Oa Magogodi, who first raised eyebrows in the mid-1990s when he published a poetry anthology controversially titled Thy Condom Come, has again penned a piece that is bound to get people talking and asking uncomfortable questions about SA’s body politic.
His new theatrical piece, Chilahaebolae, is a commentary on the country’s state of affairs — the leadership or lack of it, depending on which side of the fence you are seated. He uses animals as characters, but they have human characteristics.
"I have always done a lot of things in art, as a spoken word poet, a musician and a playwright, embracing genres to tell a story that always touches on contemporary issues," Oa Magogodi says. "In this play, for example, I am using the character of the jackal as the king of the jungle. Now, we all know that jackals are not kings of the jungle, lions are.
"When you look at democracy, for example, there is the illusion that the ordinary people have a final say in how they want to be led through holding regular elections. But do they actually have the power to influence their destinies?
"I do not think so. There are always people who wield the power behind the scenes, such as politicians and other institutions like companies. These faceless powers behind the scenes manipulate the system of democracy to get the result they desire and yet there is always that pretence, that it is the ordinary people who have the power to decide who should lead them. In my play, the jackal, instead of the lion, wields the power in the animal kingdom."
Chilahaebolae is the result of a three-year collaboration between The Wits School of Art’s division of theatre and performance and Wits Theatre in partnership with the Market Theatre Foundation. The satirical production, written and directed by Oa Magogodi, is on at the Barney Simon Theatre at the Market Theatre after a successful season at Wits Theatre.
"Three years ago, we decided to find new and exciting ways to partner with Wits University, collaborating on productions presented by our laboratory and their drama department," says Market Theatre Foundation artistic director James Ngcobo.
"Over the past three years, we have curated a work from Wits for the mid-year slot. We have also created a space for their students to come in as interns in the different departments at the Market.
"As part of the conversation that we programme here, that features some of the best in our industry, Wits is always the first institution that we invite to participate. We dissect concepts together. We aim to make sure that in the coming years, we nurture this relationship."
Chilahaebolae is the allegorical tale of Phokobje the jackal who sets out to search for his long-lost friend Mpja the dog. He finds him and discovers that things are not as they once were. Mpja is swimming in the fat of Chilahaebolae’s suburban bliss. Phokobje’s sudden appearance is an unwelcome interruption and an unpleasant reminder of Mpja’s betrayal. Cracks on the edifice of their brotherhood grow wider and deeper.
What follows is a theatrical tale that taps into the Basarwa (Setswana for the San) tradition of subversive storytelling. The antics of the animal proxies take the audience on a journey packed with laughter and adventure, while opening a window into a neocolonial world.
THREE YEARS AGO WE DECIDED TO FIND NEW AND EXCITING WAYS TO PARTNER WITH WITS UNIVERSITY
Oa Magogodi uses several languages in the play, including English, Setswana and Scamto or tsotsi taal.
His experimental work in stand-up poetry, spoken-word theatre, live music and essay-writing has found audiences across the country and the globe. His work has been translated into several languages including German, Dutch, French and Catalan.
He has worked extensively in the theatre, as a director and leader of spoken-word workshops that mix character development, storytelling, interpretive dance and political text.
Oa Magogodi’s approach to spoken word theatre took shape over a decade of experimental workshops in which he was casting and directing Wits University Drama School students, New York University students and an independent poetry group at North-West University.
In Chilahaebolae Paul Noko plays the role of Phokobje.
Sibusiso Mkhize is in the role of Mpja. Wits students in the
production include Zimkhitha Mohlabeng, who plays Katse. Motho is played by Abongile Matyutyu, Nolitha Radebe is Mokotoi and Nakesa Ndou plays Phiri. Pianist Zipho Mokoena plays the zookeeper, Shane Veeran is the circus master and Joel Leonard is the butcher.
Chilahaebolae is at the Barney Simon Theatre at the Market Theatre until May 28.