When you watch a play in a language you don’t understand, suddenly you gain a jarring insight into the daily reality of millions of people who have to speak, learn, read and comprehend in a tongue that is not their own. You are forced to scour the piece for nonverbal clues, decode the actors’ physicality and make educated guesses.
This is one of the revelations that the play Mosali Eo U ’Neileng Eena (The Woman That You Have Given Me) throws up at the non-Sesotho-speaking viewer, but its significance goes beyond that.
Mosali, the first entirely Sesotho professional production to be staged at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, is a tacit acknowledgment that #LanguageHegemonyMustFall — and that theatres need to start producing #TheatreForAll.
Director Selloane "Lalu" Mokuku is known for her work with the ShakeXperience arts education group (including co-producing Neil Coppen’s inspired imagining of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which is returning to the Market soon).
She says: "It’s been a dream of mine to see a Sesotho play like this one on stage. It’s not about just talking about it [promoting indigenous languages], but actually doing something."
This vintage play by pioneering Basotho author and dramatist Ntseliseng Masechele Khaketla is the theatre’s way of saying that art should be produced — and consumed — in all of SA’s 11 official languages. It is being staged to commemorate Heritage Month.
Under the artistic direction of James Ngcobo, the Market has been adding more Afrikaans plays to its roster, and last year took a major gamble by staging its first Setswana play— Lepatata, which went on to bag a Naledi Theatre Award for best ensemble cast.
It’s a risk producing plays in indigenous languages, no doubt about it. You could effectively alienate a large chunk of your audience that’s accustomed to complacently consuming their theatre largely in English — sometimes with smatterings of vernacular tongues, but seldom overwhelmingly so.
But you are also potentially opening up new, rich horizons of lingual possibility for an underserved audience that has made its peace with seeing "vernac" plays relegated to amateur or community theatre festivals, certainly not produced on a professional stage.
Mosali is a simple but affecting tale, written in 1954 and set in a village in Lesotho, about a young orphan called Tseleng (meaning "traveller") whose aunt makes her life a misery before she is married off to a seemingly dumb herdboy. But this young woman is the architect of turning her own misery around and, through persistence and a generous spirit, engineers her own happy ending.
A rather wordy play, it brims with humour, pathos and merriment as it subverts the biblical "Eve" stereotype — far from bringing darkness and suffering into the world, our heroine, as the director puts it, "gives light to her husband".
Mokuku says she visited the playwright before her death in 2012, and that Khaketla underscored the importance of being true to one’s culture.
Referencing anthropologist and African studies scholar Marimba Ani, Mokuku points out that "culture carries rules for thinking".
She was fascinated, for example, by the play’s seemingly incongruous juxtaposition of Basotho women brewing beer despite their staunch Christian beliefs, but realises that "you have to understand the cultural context of the time".
Language is intricately enmeshed with culture, and the director and the five actresses, despite being Sotho themselves, had to listen to radio programmes and read text in their home language to freshen up on it for the stage.
"I had to explain some of the concepts in English," relates Mokuku. "It’s been so empowering for all of us to learn in our own language ... a profound learning experience."
She hopes the play will spark engagement and discussion while promoting indigenous languages — and perhaps help encourage speakers of non-indigenous languages to emerge from their comfort zones and take the plunge.
Says Mokuku: "I have taken the time and effort to learn English, so perhaps the next person needs to learn how to say ‘Dumela’." She pauses, before adding: "Sometimes I can be very cheeky!"
Mosali Eo U ’Neileng Eena is at the Market Theatre until September 25, after which it will travel to the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani, as part of a new partnership between the government-funded performing arts centres that seeks to extend the life of productions.
Makhaola Ndebele, the artistic manager of Jo’burg City Theatres and a respected director in his own right, helped mentor Mokuku in this department of arts & culture-funded initiative aimed at "incubating" emerging theatre practitioners.
The Heroines of Southern Africa, a solo exhibition by Khehla Chepape Makgato, featuring striking multimedia portraits of iconic women, is a companion to the play and can be seen in the Barney Simon Theatre foyer. The theatre also has a promotion whereby, in keeping with Heritage Month, if you wear a traditional doek (head scarf), you’ll get a discount on your theatre ticket.