This review is part of the LitNet | STAND theatre review workshop. The ten participants each submitted a review to the workshop mentors for feedback. The participants reworked their reviews after two rounds of feedback from the mentors.
This is the final version of Kwanele Nyembe’s review.
Around the fire
Written by Siphokazi Jonas
Directed by Nolan Africa
Performed by Siphokazi Jonas
The multi-talented, award-winning director, performer and playwright Siphokazi Jonas reignited her trailblazing production Around the fire. The work, which was first staged in 2016, was rekindled for its Artscape debut in August of 2018.
“The core of the story remains the same, but I have developed the script and it feels as if the characters themselves have grown.” – Siphokazi Jonas
The work was just as important then as it is now. Written in a unique dramatic style, Around the fire reimagines Shange’s choreopoem structure within a South African context. It contributes to the pedagogical search for creative ways of thinking and conceptualising epistemologies that encourage holistic approaches to South African theatre production. It is one that recognises social, cultural and political frameworks as institutions of power which must be constantly evaluated for the protection of citizens. The production does not only contribute to case studies in the development of the choreopoem as a dramatic style of African storytelling for post-apartheid South Africa, but also serves as a social agent that holds a mirror to society, challenging the audience to question their role in the marginalisation of women.
Set in modern-day South Africa, Jonas’s production explores the lives of four women, Faiza, Mbali, Amber and Angel, who through a series of traumatic experiences find themselves homeless and living on the streets of Cape Town. The storytelling happens around a fire, which at once serves as a conduit for communal living. The playwright does not present the journey of these characters as a conventionally linear movement, but rather invites us to witness an ongoing struggle, with moments of victory and defeat. The narrative is driven by each woman’s account of the version of events she is willing to share. The women claim their stories, and no one decides which part is important and which isn’t. They decide for themselves. Here, the audience is tasked with examining their position in the ongoing discussion around issues that have threatened the lives of South African women. I believe Jonas’s work is as necessary as political action.
Written as a series of monologues, the play includes elements of poetry, dance and song. These are not added as mere theatrical devices, but employed instrumentally as functioning agents for the story. Poetry is woven throughout the play, including a metaphorical use of the word fire, which is used with biblical reference to the story of Moses and the burning bush. It burns but is not consumed. This is symbolic of women who endure, whose names are remembered even after they have been victims of various kinds of abuse. These insertions of poetry evoke feelings of wonder and moments of reflection through interpretation. Speaking on the development of her choreopoem, Jonas mentions in conversation that she is open to working with other practitioners in developing some poems in different native languages. Above all, Jonas’s poems also help give sociopolitical context to the play, touching on the issues of corruption and the abuse of power. The music performed with indigenous instruments and songs is provided by a musical ensemble. Members of the ensemble include Babalwa Makwetu, Nceba Gongxeka, Thabisa Dinga and Jason Skippers. “A localised sound performed authentically adds to a more holistic experience,” remarked Jonas. The ensemble provides not only the music for the play, but also the inner rhythm of the narrative and themes through dance, games and sometimes co-acting. This is done in order to fully create a world with which the audience can engage and in turn be transformed.
In one scene, Jonas steps out of the four main characters and plays the role of the preacher. She is dressed by fellow cast members and speaks on how Moses was told to take off his sandals because he had entered a holy place, where the bush was on fire but not burning up. She uses the bush as a symbol for women who are burning but not being consumed. These are women who are victims of violence, but do not give up their power, and choose rather to hone their stories. She proceeds to ask for offerings, while the cast sings an upbeat song that states, “They go missing, many dying, it’s a way of life, first the hashtags, thoughts and prayers, now they’re dead.” Every cast member gets their candle lit by the preacher and places it by the other candles, symbolising more women being remembered, while life continues for everyone else. This theme is reinforced throughout the play, as the cast lights up candles which are at the centre of the stage, almost to represent a woman dying every few minutes.
Jonas’s production creates a space where women can come together and share their experiences, and in turn celebrate their vulnerability without shame, and give back power to one another. Towards the end of the play, the character of Angel asks Amber how she has dealt with being violated; the answer isn’t known to the audience, but Angel decides to throw away the costume piece which represents her. The cast starts singing, “You are the flame and we are the fire,” in a very sombre tone. This reveals the power that can be found in allowing vulnerability to take place, but also the strength that marginalised women possess. However, it also reveals how, even though possessing power is possible, the way in which it comes is disturbing.
Directed by drama therapist Nolan Africa, Around the fire tackles trauma with sensitivity, but without pity. It is critically engaging and contextually empowering. It tactfully explores the different reactions that come with South African femicide, through the eyes of those who are most affected by it. It is a plea for change, while still instilling hope for those who see it.
Theatre review: First version
Mentor feedback: First version
Theatre review: Second version
Mentor feedback: Final version