Tuesday, 13 May 2008

South Africa.::Molora::.On Hope

This is by no means a political blog. However, in discussing the arts, politics is bound to emerge as the two are sometimes intimately entwined. As I have mentioned before, the arts are a uniquely powerful tool to voice oppression. So too are the arts a useful means to explore change and its impact. Such as the transition of a nation.

I had intended for this post to coincide with South African Freedom Day. In my defence, however, the issues it raises will surely be relevant at the forthcoming annual celebration of the official release of South Africa from the chains of apartheid – the day that led to Nelson “Madiba” Mandela to become the first black president of the Rainbow Nation.

The [Truth and Reconciliation] Commission had been founded in the belief that the truth was the only means by which the people of South Africa could come to a common understanding of their past, and that this understanding was necessary if the country was to forge a new national identity in the future.
Excerpt from: The Truth Commission by Jillian Edelstein - published in Granta 66, Summer 1999.

Molora, a Sesotho word that translates to ash (thanks OnSesotho), is a raw, intense and captivating play, written and directed by Yael Farber. If you plan on seeing this play, be warned that this post contains a spoiler – all is revealed.

Farber cleverly adapted and juxtapositioned the Greek tragedy about mother and daughter, Elektra and Klytemnestra, which is part of the violent cycle of the Oresteia Trilogy and effectively correlated it with South Africa’s own relatively recent tragedy. Apartheid.

Klytemnestra (Dorothy Ann Gould), the audacious, forceful and seemingly heartless mother portrayed the white South African institution, while her daughter, the gentle yet strong, vulnerable yet courageous and unyielding Elektra (Jabulile Tshabalala), portrayed black South Africans with all heart and soul. The face-twisting pain and oppression that Elektra was subjugated to and evidently carried with her was conveyed time and time and time again.

Although I am not one for this type of melodramatic acting, the talented actors conveyed raw emotion with much candor and intensity, drawing the audience not only into their minds, but more importantly into their hearts. The symbolism throughout the play cleverly transcended multiple layers. A simple mound of sand took centre stage, which the audience knew to be the grave of her father, Agamemnon, Elektra’s husband, who was murdered in cold blood, by his own wife. The white, gumboot-wearing mother Klytemnestra had a bloodstained face and clothes. In addition, the appropriation of well known quotes that pervaded many layers were also used to depict the incredibly challenging topics of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the much needed healing of the South African people.

What effortlessly remains with me, a true sign of the successful conveyance of her fight for survival, include the re-enactments at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Klytemnestra’s ruthless torturing of her daughter Elektra by immersing her head in water and holding it down – the “wet bag” technique of the apartheid era. Or when Klytemnestra forceably seals a plastic bag over Elektra’s head as Elektra lies face down with her mother Klytemnestra sitting on her bottom, rendering her helpless and at her mercy. Or when Klytemnestra burns Elektra with her lit cigarette. On each occasion, moments before Elektra gasped loudly as she painstakingly inhaled, desperately sucking in precious oxygen into her deprived lungs, some of the audience, myself included, fidgeted in our seats; the urgency palpable as tens of seconds that felt like minutes ticked, dictating raised heartbeats and miniature beads of sweat collecting on our brows as we quietly watched the ruthless and inhumane treatment Elektra suffered.

Although none of this was news to us, it was still shocking. It was as if we had been sucked into an unrelenting black hole and were falling to infinity as we helplessly watched Elektra suffer, knowing that the one woman’s pain that we felt and witnessed was only multiplied not-so-long-ago by a nation of millions. Or perhaps it was as if we had been grabbed by the hand by an unseen, unmatched force beneath us and pulled into a bottomless unillumined body of water. And when we came up for breath and eventually crawled out, there was no denying that we had been immersed as we were now dripping wet. Regrettably, we could not be reassured that this was just a play. For they were not just actors and what they conveyed was not based on fiction. I imagined that Elektra really had lived the pain. Knowing that one woman’s pain was so raw and so palpable left me overwhelmed, unable to imagine the pain of an entire nation.

At the core of the play was the message/question: is revenge the only and natural response? In other words, is forgiveness possible?

Once Elektra and her brother Orestes are re-united, Elektra voices her simple but heartfelt monologue, quoting Shakespeare:

If you prick us do we not bleed?
If you tickle us do we not laugh?
If you poison us do we not die?
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Throughout the play, the Xhosa women and one man of the Ngqoko Cultural Group mainly stood at the sidelines of the set, creating the ritualistic ambience through their split tone harmonies and instruments that include a milking drum and calabash and bow. Later, as grief consumes the wailing Elektra, she lies across the group of the kneeling Xhosa women who lovingly embrace her and envelope her, caressing her body that emanates with raw and tender grief from every pore, singing to her to give her spiritual healing through touch and song – insinuating this is the only way to heal the grief, the anger and the deep-seated desire for revenge. And later, brother and sister, Elektra and Orestes, unlike in the storyline of the Greek myth, spare their mother’s life.

The message is clear: revenge will not undo any of the wrongs inflicted upon them but only cause more grief.

The play ends with a silent yet incredibly powerful message - falling ash onto the shoulders of the silent, still and onward-looking cast. The ash, a tribute to the uncountable victims of the apartheid era, as a new South Africa emerges.

But the stars of the evening, in my opinion were the women of the Ngqoko Cultural Group. Their split tone guttural singing was not only captivating and haunting, but like none other I have ever heard. At first I was perplexed at their lack of eye contact with the audience, including during the bows at the end of the play. As I walked towards the tube station minutes later, our paths crossed. Star struck and unconcealingly impressed by these women, I approached them to thank them and their translator, the man of the group, willingly obliged. It instantly struck me that the reason they did not interact with the audience in their body language was simply because they were not actors. They were authentic Xhosa singers, their faces unwashed and still adorned in bodypaint and dressed in the same clothes they had worn on stage. That evening, they had simply done what they usually did. The only difference being that a random audience in a basement theatre in central London had watched them. I felt incredibly humbled by these women and grateful to have been a witness and to have been immersed in their enchanting primordial, ancestral sounds.

For a taste of Molora click here.
Molora is currently on tour in Europe and USA.

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