Waves of philosophy and the absurd in powerful commentary on postcolonial Africa
First produced in 1995, Zakes Mda’s play mirrors the broken promises, greed, corruption and hunger for power in the postapartheid government
You Fool, How Can The Sky Fall, The Mother Of All Eating and We Shall Sing For The Fatherland may be considered to be novelist and playwright Zakes Mda’s trilogy exploring themes of political betrayal and the dysfunction of postcolonial African countries.
First produced in 1995, You Fool, How Can The Sky Fall mirrors the broken promises, greed, corruption and preoccupation with power by the postapartheid government. It was hailed as prophetic.
But for Mda, whose scepticism was fueled by his observations of politics on the continent, the play was meant as an extended metaphor on the postcolonial African condition. Its continental appeal is one of the main reasons behind the staging of You Fool at the Market Theatre alongside the Congolese play, Congo: The Trial Of King Leopold II.
“We wanted to run it concurrently with a Congolese play about King Leopold to create a conversation between these two African works about man’s obsession with power,” says director James Ngcobo. “I have always articulated my absolute curiosity about narratives from our continent and creating a visibility and synergy between them.”
Ngcobo is revisiting the Mda text 10 years after initially staging You Fool at the Wits Theatre. The text is the play’s biggest drawcard – it is satirical with surreal symbolism.
Set in what seems to be a prison cell, the action is centred on a group of cabinet ministers and their president, discussing the trivialities of running a government. Intermittently one of them goes out to be interrogated and tortured by an external powerful force known only as “them”.
Aside from their greed and corruption, the characters also display the incompetence of government officials who are totally disconnected from the needs of the people. This selfish neglect and total disregard for the plight of the common man is also stark in We Shall Sing For The Fatherland and The Mother Of All Eating.
You Fool, however, leans towards petty dictatorship and the effects of corrupted power. It tries to answer the psychological dilemma that has been a long-standing characteristic of postcolonial African countries – where the changeover from liberation struggle to freedom sees the new guard reverting to the ways of the coloniser.
A line in the play hypothesises that it’s human nature to create, worship and destroy deities. That’s debatable. The idea of benevolence is chorused throughout the script as government’s answer to appeasing the angry masses in place of service delivery or the implementation of real change.
The script is very comical in places, but its truth is subversively glaring. It’s symbolic how the department of arts & culture is ridiculed in the drama, yet it is the arts that continue to be a vehicle for political commentary, as in this play.
It is not an easy script. It moves in waves of the absurd, witty and philosophical. It needs a cast with the competence to ride on those waves. This cast delivers, especially because of the weight of experience brought by Nthati Moshesh and Molefi Monaisa. They are matched by the talent of a younger breed that includes Moliehi Makhobane, Linda Sokulu, Pulane Sekepe, Zenzo Ngqobe and Zola Nombona.
Nombona is a revelation as Young Man, fiery and delicate, allowing Mda’s words to find meaning in her fine form. Perhaps the character brings that out. Bafana Khumalo highlights the skill of a young Desmond Dube playing the same character in his review of You Fool when it was staged at the Windybrow Theatre in 1995.
Young Man represents the populace, but more importantly today, he mirrors the new generation whose voices and fight for free tertiary education have been recognised in recent politics in SA.
Ngcobo does a gender swap with the characters — an effective trick that gets the mind working and plays to the script when it gets comically stereotypical. The actors don’t make a caricature of this, which is a clever move. Ngqobe plays his woman honestly and it will be interesting to track how he grows in this character.
Ngcobo’s minimal usage of visuals accentuates certain scenes, but that is unnecessary. Perhaps an aural evocation in some places would have been a better match. He succeeds in allowing the words to play the lead, letting Mda’s script get to work.
It is a play for all times. The laughs, the intellectual exercise and the reflection are worth it. Laugh, the beloved country.
You Fool, How Can The Sky Fall is at the Market Theatre until October 28.