Zakes Mda may well be, together with Athol Fugard, one of South Africa’s best known playwrights, but I haven’t seen many of his works performed. In fact, the only two which I have seen to date are The Bells of Amersfoort and We Shall Sing for the Fatherland. And now, of course, The Hill, a classic of South African theatre.

Born in 1948 in Herschel, in the Eastern Cape, Mda is now a mature academic at the University of Ohio. The Hill was written and first performed in 1978, when Mda was a young man. It won the “Amstel Playwright of the Year Award”.

This play is directed by James Ngcobo whom I saw in Mike van Graan’s critically acclaimed political thriller, Green Man Flashing, at The Market Theatre a while back. Before that I saw him as Jacob in La Cage aux Folles at The Civic, for which he won the “Best Actor in Comedy Award”. Last year he directed The Suitcase for which he won a Naledi award as Best Director (2006).

This combination of award winning play, directed by an award winning director, promised to be both entertaining and artistically worthy. It mostly delivered on its promise.

The set is simply a series of brown canvas covered steps with a high point behind them and a large cross placed on the other side with a pile of stones around it. Behind ‘the hill’ a line is suspended along which various items are moved across the stage on a pulley to indicate various things; cheap but effective. The costumes are Lesotho style grass hats and blankets over appropriate, mostly period, civilian clothing.

The story hasn’t dated as much in the thirty years as I imagined it would although I’m not sure what changes, if any, Ngcobo made.

Set in Lesotho The Hill deals mainly with men waiting to go to the mines of Johannesburg. There are elements of how badly miners are treated and I don’t think these issues have gone away. There are still women whose husbands come to Johannesburg and they are never seen again. There are still prostitutes and thieves waiting to prey on miners who have come home from the mines with money in their pockets. There are still dreams and promises of a better life for miners.

I thought the student cast did well, creating distinct characters for the most part. I was impressed with the Young Man, played by Tefo Paya and the Man, Jerry Mntonga who really did manage to seem years older than the Young Man. The Veteran, Tshepiso Konopi also created a very plausible character.

The play deals openly and honestly with the issue of same-sex sexual relationships, apparently rife in the male hostels, in a way which must have been very provocative in the repressed late seventies. But this is a very minor, although persistent, theme of the play.

This charming piece of theatre can be seen at the Wits Downstairs Theatre until 29 April. Book at Computicket.

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