Faniswa Yani, Faniswa Yisa, Chuma Sopotela, Awethu Hleli and Motlatji Ditodi star as singers who make a living from funerals and at the same time find the best source of leftover food. Picture: SUZY BERNSTEIN
Faniswa Yani, Faniswa Yisa, Chuma Sopotela, Awethu Hleli and Motlatji Ditodi star as singers who make a living from funerals and at the same time find the best source of leftover food. Picture: SUZY BERNSTEIN

As is his nature, playwright Mike van Graan breaks new ground again — in a fashion. His latest work, Another One’s Bread, is commissioned by the Centre of Excellence in Food Security, but he has also used the opportunity to tap into the trending world of woman power quite magnificently.

Commissions are not a new thing, but kudos to the centre for taking its topics of interest and giving them to activist playwright Van Graan who, in recent years, has found the ideal way to juggle comedy and crisis.

His latest work is a dark comedy about food, funerals and feeding schemes.

The Centre of Excellence in Food Security was established by the Department of Science and Technology’s National Research Foundation. It conducts research on how a sustainable food system can be achieved to realise food security for poor, vulnerable and marginalised populations in SA.

Van Graan’s writing is always crisp and insightful but finding a handle, in this instance on food security, and tying it to something as ubiquitous as funerals, which have spectacular value in black communities — "they eat Shoprite food but want Woolworths funerals" — is sheer brilliance and allows for an abundance of hilarity.

In direct contrast to Zakes Mda’s tragic mourner in Ways of Dying, Van Graan’s group The Substitutes, whose name implies a singing group rather than a serious quartet of mourners, are four dynamic women who have come together driven by need.

The one, as the title suggests, feeds the other. Not only are they making a living but by finding the best source of leftover food — funerals — they have discovered a way of generously keeping their feeding schemes going and growing in the township.

Chuma Sopotela. Picture: SUZY BERNSTEIN
Chuma Sopotela. Picture: SUZY BERNSTEIN

Fashioning the play out of short sketches allows Van Graan to pick different topics for each one. One that many South Africans would appreciate is bureaucracy. It has become the scourge of the modern world and it seems to be the instrument big business has chosen to hang on to money while endlessly frustrating customers until they run off screaming.

Van Graan spotlights this with an incomprehensible application being drafted for the Arts and Culture Fund while, on the other side of the room, one of the women is on the phone to a call centre pushing several buttons before connecting with a human.

The razor-sharp text is combined with clever casting of four actresses — Faniswa Yisa, Chuma Sopotela, Motlatji Ditodi, Awethu Hleli.

They are cunningly individual yet speak with one voice. Van Graan’s decision to write this play with female characters directed by Pamela Nomvete is dazzling and timely.

And they nail it! The play is fun and highlights the comedic talents of Sopotela and Yisa.

It is slightly messy but it works as the actors move in and out of the stories with the focus on different characters and their tales — or they simply squabble quite deliciously around a table.

But while Van Graan delivers giggles, he never lets his audience off the hook.

It’s a time of trouble in SA and beyond and he won’t let you forget it. He’s simply feeding audiences some funny lines to hook them gently before he turns the screws.

That’s what is needed in these times. We can’t turn away from what is happening. It’s a disaster on so many levels.

Van Graan offers an opportunity to look at it from a different vantage point: laugh a little – or a lot as in this instance — and then get serious as the message sinks in.

He casts the net far wider than might have been asked for when he was commissioned, but it forces audiences to listen carefully. He preaches vegetarianism as the healthier option while lambasting the fat cats in Parliament. Then he sweetly turns the land issue upside down with a discussion on the disastrously tiny plots of land used for RDP houses.

With funerals as the backdrop, Van Graan taps into a lucrative business in the black community. Many families might end up spending more on the dead than on the living and he has plenty to say about that.

One of his characters talks about her burial and how she would rather go up in smoke than lie until the end of time among strangers in a cemetery. Holding it all together is the camaraderie of the four larger-than-life characters as they turn up at funerals where they do the mourning – with a flourish – and then get paid.

This comes with soul-baring singing and choreography that’s to die for. It is a terrific way to start a theatre year and allows an opportunity to vent.

Another One’s Bread is at Mannie Manim Theatre at the Market in Newtown, Johannesburg until February 4.

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