Theatre duo push past the veil to find truth and precision in African storytelling
Billy Langa and Mahlatsi Mokgonyana are engaging in a daring experiments to bring forth the bare truth
A conviction to distil bold ideas and an insatiable drive to create are some of the qualities that make Billy Langa and Mahlatsi Mokgonyana two dynamic young theatre makers to watch.
Their mission is to make work that has an immediate impact yet also has an influence that will echo into the future. Their daring aesthetics and the poignancy of their work leaves audiences moved.
The theatre-making duo is the force behind Tswalo, one of the most talked-about productions of 2017-2018. The play won the Cape Town Fringe Fresh Performer and Creative Award and earned an Ovation Award at the 2018 National Arts Festival.
Fusing poetry with physical theatre, Tswalo examines concepts such as time, history, memory, existence and creation through mythical and mystical prisms. Employing a collision of the metaphysical and the real, it reflects on what imbues and governs life, with themes of love, intuition, power and politics peppered throughout the performance.
Written and performed by Langa and directed by Mokgonyana, Tswalo has toured Germany and Namibia. It has been published by Junkets, a small independent publisher dedicated to publishing new SA plays.
Langa and Mokgonyana recently presented their new work, Salt, at William Kentridge’s Centre for the Less Good Idea. The experimental show pushed the boundaries of minimalist performance with a restricted use of the body and a pronounced examination of spoken word and its position within the body.
The objective was to refine performance to its simplest form: the truth. In probing performance language, the duo’s challenge was to find the theatricality of the words so as not to lose their audience in plain speech.
The imagery of their content and the use of clever tools such as a rotating stage and performative lighting provides enough substance to see the evolution of this idea to its end.
Salt was a perfect fit for Kentridge’s centre, which encourages experimentation and failure and values process above all else. There are plans to take the performance to other venues.
“We want to interrogate the politics of storytelling in an African context. We mainly want to interrogate the origins and evolution of African storytelling and expand on that,” said Mokgonyana.
Langa says the point of their work is to find precision – identifying what they are doing and finding its limits. “With Tswalo it was the body and a body of text and stretching the two,” he added.
“It’s about being precise about the choices we make to capture the image. In African storytelling, the image is a big thing – it carries the story and is carried throughout. So we want to see how far we can stretch the images that we’re trying to explore in this current time.”
Mokgonyana says precision, clarity and imagery distinguish each and every style, medium of performance or art. “In being precise, we want to be able to specialise and be known for a specific thing,” he added.
The duo’s home is the rich source that informs their ideas. They are both Bapedi with ancestral homes in Ga Mokopane and Moletje Ga Setati in Limpopo.
Langa says the knowledge and culture embedded in his mother tongue is a well from which he develops new languages to tell stories that connect them to the world.
Mokgonyana says poetry is an appropriate medium to explore their big ideas, as it helps to compress them and zoom them into focus, making them accessible in their heightened form.
“As Africans, we’ve always spoken in a heightened fashion – our oral tradition hints at this,” Mokgonyana said.
The two were friends first and have been collaborators for the past five years. They are both graduates of the Market Theatre Laboratory and founded a company, The Movement RSA.
Langa is a writer, performer and director, with performance credits including PoetOtype, Thirst, Little Foot, Egoli and many others.
Mokgonyana is a director, performer and facilitator who has been seen in Egoli, Ketekang and DET Boys High. He has directed, among others, Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!, which was acknowledged in 2016 as a fine revival of the play.
The duo won a Naledi Theatre Award for Best Production for Young Audiences for their direction of Just Antigone in 2017.
Passionate about working with the youth and exploring personal narratives, their latest directing project is a play called A Place of Knowing. A collaboration with young AFDA theatre collective Intsusa, it explores intense issues of mental health, sexuality and mother-to-child relations.
A Place of Knowing is at the Drama For Life International Conference and Festival at Wits University from November 28 to December 8.