What a fabulous musical Soweto Story makes. It’s local and lekker. Based on the timeless Romeo and Juliet tale, or rather more accurately, Bernstein’s Westside Story, it captures the spirit and feel of 21st century Soweto so well that it seems that it could never have happened anywhere else but in this township.
The sets by Stan Knight are magnificent, richly detailed and highly evocative, if somewhat ponderous and problematic in their changes. The action opens onto a taxi rank. I visualise the one near to the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. I see the huge, ugly concrete bridge, the taxis, the vendors under umbrellas and with cooler boxes, braai grids and constructed distribution points. The place hums busily. But it is the gauze pennants hanging above the stage proclaiming their faded wares which sum up the feel of the place so succinctly: “Dark & Lovely”, “Surf”, “Ijuba”, “Chicken”, “Courtleigh”, “Five Roses”, “ABSA” (incidentally the sponsors of this brave venture), “Smirnoff” and others dare us to doubt the fiscal power of the black consumer.
The sets that follow are equally memorable. There’s a glitzy hair salon for women with ‘difficult hair’. A scrapyard scene, a workshop, the outside and then the inside of “Pinky’s” – a fashionable shebeen, the insides of the homes of both feuding families, the famous balcony which here is a roof garden, a shanty town and a railway station are all constructed with the same meticulous attention to capturing the essence of the real thing. At no stage is the urban sprawl that is Soweto ever out of sight. These sets are truly spectacular.
Atmospheric lighting by Denis Hutchinson complements the sets. He resists the temptation to do the spectacular, sticking to what is realistic. The neon salon, the seedy scrapyard, the stark workshop, the shebeen, the smart home of the wealthy Twalas and the modest home of the Kheswas and the station are all appropriately lit, although some of the scenes are a little dark for my personal taste.
Sarah Roberts created the costumes. In the last two years she has been the winner of the Naledi for best costume, first in Chicago and then for Fangs. She’s not short of work as a result, and it certainly seems as if her creativity follows the usual pattern of being positively influenced by its continuous exercise. Two dresses stood out particularly, the evening gowns of Thandi and Pinky. The usual convention of dressing the different families in different colours was preserved and the rich diversity of style found in Soweto was captured. The meticulous attention to detail was epitomised in the Xhosa dress of the background dancers in the grieving mother scene, which, although it contributed little to the plot, was one of my favourite scenes.
Brilliant choreography gives this musical a joyous feeling. Adele Blank and Siphiwe ‘Supa’ Zungu have done a great job. The Xhosa scene behind the heartbreaking ballad of a bereaved mother is moving. The tap dance of the SAP in the squatter camp is fabulous. Pantsula, nightclub shuffling, standard and innovative contemporary ensemble work and slick visual humour, such as the ‘ballet’ scene early in the first act all work well to keep the tone upbeat and sassy.
The lovers were played by Aubrey Poo (Vuyani Kheswa, a Xhosa member of the Pantsula gang) and Nkoto Malebye, (Thandi Twala, the daughter of a Zulu taxi-baron). The supporting cast are wonderful.
Music by Janine Neethling and Zwai Bala crossed cultures, mixed genres, and generally wove its spell using kwaito, Afro-pop, township jazz, the blues and probably a few I’ve missed. The music both instrumental and vocal was interesting. Some of the singing was a bit shrill in the upper registers and the sound was far from perfect.
Programmes are reasonably priced at R30. I know there are illustrious critics who feel that the programme is not part of the show and should therefore not be commented on. I disagree. The programme is that part of a production which patrons take away with them. It will evoke memories of the evening for people for whom an outing to the theatre is a treat and it will be a source of reference for those of us who vaguely remember an artist and want to see where he or she has been seen before. In this regard this is an excellent programme. It gives all the pertinent details, including head and shoulder shots of the cast and crew. It doesn’t make use of expensive and pointless pages of photographs which simply add to the cost of the show.
This production is a fantastic showpiece for South African culture and talent. It will do exceptionally well on an international tour where, I predict, it will gain critical acclaim and play to sold out audiences. It will need to be cut by thirty minutes for most overseas theatres (last train home considerations), which would also be to the comfort of local audiences.
This is a wonderful production and a brave venture. I’m not sure it will sell a ‘packed house’ seven week run, although word of mouth and positive reviews will help it pick up later in its local run. I’m hopeful that Soweto Story will do well at home – as it deserves to.
Soweto Story is on at the Johannesburg Civic: Nelson Mandela Theatre until May 13.