Musical strikes a note for fallists
Gritty Freedom production goes to the heart of the pain and violence of the #FeesMust Fall movement, writes Edward Tsumele
Freedom, a musical that depicts recent student protests on campuses around the country, takes audiences into the heart of the pain and violence that defined those events.
When the #FeesMust Fall movement exploded on campuses in 2015 as university students took to the streets to highlight the cost of education and the poverty they faced, it caught the authorities by surprise. Many citizens were also surprised by this strife, which spread to most campuses like wildfire. It later emerged that students had been bottling up their frustration for many years.
Students who are dubbed the missing middle — whose parents earned too much to qualify for the government’s student aid — erupted with anger at former historically white universities, where libraries and art were destroyed by arsonists. Others complained about the so-called black tax, where graduating black students are burdened for years by the expectation that they will financially support their extended families.
Violence quickly became a feature of the strife on campuses, and police officers and security guards used force to deal with vandalism and other destructive behaviour by some angry students. Excessive force was used in some cases and injuries were inflicted, eliciting criticism from some sectors of society.
Another issue that emerged from the students was whether the freedom promised in 1994 had been realised.
The born-free generation scrutinised and criticised the gap between the poor — the majority of whom are black — and the rich, most of whom are white. They described poverty as a racialised phenomenon.
These issues are all under the spotlight in the State Theatre in Pretoria’s new musical play, Freedom. Co-written by Aubrey Sekhabi, the artistic director of the State Theatre, and Kabelo "Bonafide Billi" Togoe, who is the theatre’s musical director, the production dissects clinically the issues raised by the #FeesMustFall movement.
Freedom is a catchy play, retelling the story of the student strife in a tight narrative. The music, mainly rap and hip hop, is so good that it seems to be the main character at times.
But a production with lots of good music and no dialogue is no longer a play, but a concert. Freedom intermittently rescues itself by introducing hot dialogue and confrontation between the characters.
Simphiwe Ndlovu, who plays student leader Phindile Ndlovu, is an especially gifted actress. She evokes the drama of leading a crowd of angry students to the Union Buildings to demand free education.
The writers have spiced up the true events they are staging by injecting a love story — a love triangle that inflicts a heavy toll on Ndlovu’s life.
Due to her poverty, Ndlovu is forced to live a double life. She has a boyfriend who she really loves on campus but also has a blesser (sugar daddy), who takes care of her material needs.
Although it deals with painful events in post-apartheid SA, especially how poverty is a stumbling block for the youth, the musical entertains while educating. The sets and lights designed by Wilhelm Disbergen are a marvel.
• Freedom is at the South African State Theatre on Tuesday to Sunday until April 2.