Canadian Stage brings Apartheid-era play Nongogo to Toronto as part of its Spotlight South Africa Festival
Nongogo, which opened on Wednesday evening at the Berkeley Street Theatre, is part of Canadian Stage’s Spotlight South Africa Festival. It’s the first play I’ve ever seen where the audience is greeted by the aroma of simmering soup. I’d just had dinner and it still smelled inviting.
The play takes place in an illicit bar, a shebeen, in a township. During apartheid black people weren’t allowed in licensed bars, so townships created their own gathering places to come together and drink and dance and debate and all the other things people do at pubs and bars.
At its core Nongogo is a play about characters, there is nothing new or revelatory in the plot, it’s a story of love and loss that we’ve all seen countless times before. All of the characters are yearning for something more, something to fix their lives. It’s really a universal story and could take place in any seedy bar anywhere.
But it doesn’t. It takes place in apartheid South Africa. It was first performed in 1959.
When I was a child I lived in South Africa for seven years, from 1957 to 1964. Those were apartheid years and even as a child I couldn’t understand why Blacks lived differently than Whites. It didn’t matter how often my brother and I asked “Why?”; we never got an answer beyond “That’s the way things are” and we learned to stop asking.
Watching Nongogo I found myself wondering who saw the play when it was first produced in 1959. Certainly not my parents or any of their friends or co-workers; no one in the Women’s Club my mother belonged to; none of my school-mates’ parents; no one at the church we attended; none of our neighbours.
The piece was written by Athol Fugard, a white South African who was an anti-apartheid activist. He started a multiracial theatre company in Johannesburg that produced the show, one of his first. Still, despite the multiracial company, I imagine that the majority of people who saw Nongogo in those early years were black and lived in townships like the one where the play is set.
They probably drank in shebeens like the one in the play – or at least the men did. They probably recognized the characters in the play. And they probably recognized the longing of those characters for ‘better and more’ as their own longings.
That is all pretty incredible to think about in the context of history. It must have been an amazing thing 56 years ago. I’m not sure how many of them would have seen a lot of this type of theatre, and if they had, it probably didn’t validate their experiences. It must have been a powerful experience.
I found it an interesting choice of a play to include in a festival celebrating South African performance; one where all the characters are black but the playwright is white. It felt strange to be ‘hearing black voices’ that were in fact black voices provided by a white voice. Not to say that the voices didn’t sound authentic. They did.
It’s the only play written during the apartheid era included in Spotlight South Africa. Perhaps there are not a lot of pieces available written by black playwrights during the apartheid era telling those stories. There is certainly no doubt that Fugard was doing important work, and at the time he would have been in a better position to share the stories widely than a black playwright.
When you are watching the production in Toronto in 2015 though, it can be hard to keep all of that context in mind. Sitting in the Berkeley Theatre you are simply watching a strong production about five people full of longing for more.
The shebeen is run by Queeny (Masasa Mbangeni), a former hooker. The play opens with Blackie (Desmond Dube) cleaning up the shebeen in the morning and getting it ready for the evening. Queeny rescued him from a group of people who were tormenting him and he stays and helps her.
The three other characters are Johnny (Nat Ramabulana) as a travelling salesman, Sam (Pakamisa Zwedala), a shopkeeper and Queeny’s former pimp, and Patrick (Hamilton Dhlamini) as a customer whose wife is about to deliver their fifth child.
The ambiance created by Nadya Cohen’s design of the show was wonderful. James Ngcobo’s direction brought the story to life. The piece was full of little touches that made it feel ‘real’, the smell of soup as we walked into the theatre was such a wonderful touch, I keep thinking about it.
Given that this is a play more about the characters more than the plot, it is one that ultimately succeeds or fails on the strength of the performances. In this case the performances were wonderful, with actors inhabiting their characters so fully that they just seemed like real people on stage instead of actors playing a character. They were all people I recognized from the world around me.
I have to admit that both my friend Elaine and I had trouble hearing all of the dialogue. Probably mostly a function of age and acoustics. It was compounded for Elaine by the accents. We were far from being the oldest people in the audience and both wondered how the really old people managed. It’s a shame; I know I missed some of the nuances of the script. That said, even though we didn’t hear every word we enjoyed the play.
While this was not the powerful piece it would have been for people when it was first produced, when really, it’s mere existence was a political act – Fugard’s theatre was under constant police surveillance. There were not really any revelations about life for black people under apartheid in South Africa, but it was an opportunity to see a production filled with amazing talent that you won’t normally see in Toronto.
- Nongogo is playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street) until April 12
- Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm
- Ticket prices range from $24.00 to $49.00
- Tickets are available online, by phone at 416.368.3110 and at the box office
Photo of Pakamisa Zwedala and Masasa Mbangeni by Ruphin Coudyzer