Colour bar: Vusi Kunene and Zikhona Sodlaka play the key roles in James Ngcobo’s version of Athol Fugard’s Nongogo. Set in a shebeen, the 1959 play presents apartheid as a silent character that wreaks havoc in the lives of the characters. Picture: BRETT RUBIN
Colour bar: Vusi Kunene and Zikhona Sodlaka play the key roles in James Ngcobo’s version of Athol Fugard’s Nongogo. Set in a shebeen, the 1959 play presents apartheid as a silent character that wreaks havoc in the lives of the characters. Picture: BRETT RUBIN

The Athol Fugard season at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg concludes with the play Nongogo, which highlights Fugard’s knack for telling human stories that bear witness to political conditions. The play, written in 1959, captures the onset of apartheid’s destruction of black lives.

It was also the first play James Ngcobo staged at the Market Theatre after he was appointed the artistic director five years ago. He is revisiting it with fresh ideas.

Set in a shebeen, Nongogo brings together the broken, displaced and hopeful characters from Johannesburg’s townships in the 1950s.

The drama revolves around Queeny, a shebeen queen – the only woman in the play. The role was written for veteran stage and film actress Nomhle Nkonyeni, who first played Queeny in 1959.

Supporting her is Sam, her liquor supplier and old friend. Blackie and Patrick are characters who find refuge and solace in the shebeen, and Johnny is a stranger for whom the shebeen starts off as an occupational stop on his redemptive journey.

This rendition of Nongogo features film and television actor Vusi Kunene, whose inclusion marks a home-coming for the Wits University dramatic arts graduate. The last time Kunene was seen on stage was in the State Theatre production of The Rivonia Trial in 2010.

Ngcobo and Kunene, who acted alongside each other in the cult TV series Yizo Yizo 2, had always wanted to collaborate on stage. Kunene was hand-picked for Ngcobo’s first staging of Nongogo in 2013, but was dropped due to scheduling clashes.

In the role of Queeny is television actress Zikhona Sodlaka, who makes her debut at the Market Theatre. Peter Mashigo makes his long-awaited return to its stage in the role of Blackie.

Bongani Gumede, who plays Patrick, is an alumni of the Market Theatre Laboratory, while Zenzo Ngqobe, in the role of Johnny, honed his talents at the State Theatre.

"I believe the growth of a director is based on how he is constantly changing the personnel with whom he works," says Ngcobo.

"Out of this group, Zenzo Ngqobe is the only one I have directed before.

"I believe it’s important for our patrons to see different playwrights, directors and actors at the Market, so the palette of the theatre is constantly changing.

"I’m approaching the character of Patrick differently to give a back story into how highly educated black people suffered from the laws of the country at that time.

"I had a younger actress play Queeny, Masasa Mbangeni, for my first production of Nongogo. This time around I have gone with Zikhona to be the age group that Queeny is in the play, and I have gone for a younger Johnny to escalate the tensions."

This time, he opted for a traverse staging, with audiences on either side of the theatre to conjure up the idea of them as witnesses to the lives presented in the play, with the action taking place in the middle.

Reuniting with set designer Nadya Cohen for this production, they have gone for a poetic space that allows the story to flow without the confines of a constructed set that seeks to replicate the setting of the play.

"We can now dream up some of the moments and be playful with the presentation of the play," says Ngcobo.

Even more powerful is that some of the realities presented in the play have not changed. To mirror this pertinence, parts of the costuming have been retained to represent the period, while others reflect the everyday man of today.

The strength of the play lies in how apartheid is presented as a silent character. What dominates are the collisions of the characters that come to the shebeen to escape their respective miseries caused by the political state of the country.

It is characteristic of a Fugard text to poignantly show the painful effects of an oppressive system and its influence on the human condition through sincere human experiences.

Even more powerful is that some of the realities presented in the play have not changed. To mirror this pertinence, parts of the costuming have been retained to represent the period, while others reflect the everyday man of today.

"Someone who is living in the contemporary tapestry in SA will be able to recognise the people and hear things said by these characters that are part of the murmurs that you’re hearing today — like issues of dispossession, a sense of wanting to belong, and a yearning for dignity," Ngcobo says.

"You get to realise that on our path to changing our society, taking on board the aspirations we have as a nation … there is so much of the baggage that was unattended to.

"Our jump at the colourful promise of the rainbow nation stifled the healing that needed to take place. And this is what Nongogo is showing us."

Ngcobo says the importance of this play is amplified for him as a father. "I feel one of the things we have to do for our young is to place memory in their hands, so that they are able, with confidence and resolve, to move forward with a clear understanding of their point of reference," he says.

"When you travel around our continent and around the world, you realise that nations that do well are nations with memory," he says.

"And the text of some of these works gift that to an audience."

Nongogo is at the Market Theatre until July 15.

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