With passion and pride: The 12-member ensemble of Hani: The Legacy won the National Arts Festival award in 2017 for their performance. Picture: CRAIG CHITIMA
With passion and pride: The 12-member ensemble of Hani: The Legacy won the National Arts Festival award in 2017 for their performance. Picture: CRAIG CHITIMA

In these trying times people need heroes who can be emulated as role models. Who better than the late Chris Hani as reimagined by the Market Theatre Laboratory students, graduates of 2017, in a Gold Ovation Award production in their first professional run presented at the Ramolao Makhene Theatre at the Market Square in Newtown, Johannesburg?

Hani: The Legacy originated when lecturer Leila Henriques had to create a play with a group of first-year students for their acting class.

"I was inspired by Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda, his philosophy," she says about the hip-hop musical about the life of US founding father Alexander Hamilton. That took her to Hani, a man whose death is better recorded and illustrated than his life. Henriques knew that she had found her inspirational figure, a person today’s youth know very little about.

The students started by creating timelines that had to be researched. How, for example, Hani walked 25km to school on Mondays and back on Fridays as a young rural boy.

The research not only boded well for their performance — which won the National Arts Festival award last year after playing to full houses there — but also taught the students how to put together a show, to workshop and improvise, to research and keep working to perfect the product.

It’s about celebrating a life and ensuring Hani is not defined by his death. And it had to be done with music.

"It’s been amazing because none of these actors were singers but the sounds they created have been magical," says Henriques.

This is their language, they understand the rhythms required and how a movement emphasises a sound and the sounds inform the story.

It had to be an integrated part of the storytelling.

They have combined hip-hop, ballad, traditional music and choreography pulled together by Teresa Phuti Mojela to underline the life story of a struggle hero who played a key role in the liberation of SA.

Hani was murdered by right-wing extremists in April 1993. This turned him into a martyr and Hani: The Legacy is an attempt to use theatre in an innovative way to colourfully explore the full life of a man who had died for freedom — the revolutionary, the freedom fighter who became a father, and the husband who became a hero.

"What could have been if Hani was still alive is what could still be his legacy," is how Henriques captures their thinking. But more importantly, this is the youth speaking to the youth, telling South African stories. This is where the strength of the production lies.

What Henriques and the cast tried to do was walk the life of a rural boy who became a struggle hero, the gap left by his assassination and the potency of a legacy that is nurtured in a time of enormous political and social challenges.

After the production got traction and went on to win awards, they knew it could travel. Henriques is thrilled that this season offers the new young graduates a bridge into their professional world.

It’s a large cast, 12 actors, but that’s all they need. There’s no set or any other trappings. It’s the cast, the music and their story. "It’s easily transportable," says Henriques.

She is effusive in her praise of her young cast. Describing them as exceptional, she cannot speak generously enough about their enthusiasm, energy and commitment. With the help of her assistant-director, Linda Tshabalala, Henriques feels blessed and privileged to work with these young talents.

At the end of January, she returns to her first love, acting. She is working with director Sylvaine Strike on a Sam Shepard play, Curse of the Starving Class, which premieres at the Woordfees in Stellenbosch (March 2 to 11).

"It’s the words," she says, of the play, "it’s beautiful and so amazing to work with such a quality text." She’s also excited by the cast, which includes actors Rob van Vuuren, Neil McCarthy, Roberto Pombo and Anthony Coleman.

The cast of Hani: The Legacy are Boikobo Masibi, Darlington Khoza, Khanyiswa Mazwi, Mathews Rantsoma, Mthokozisi Dhludhlu, Ncumisa Ndimeni, Nosipho Buthelezi, Pereko Makgothi, Thabiso Motseatsea, Tumeka Matintela, Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi and Vusi Nkwenkwezi.

The play is on at Ramolao Makhene @The Market Theatre Square from January 16 to 28.

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