South African masculinity has been exceptionally tainted by hegemony throughout the 20th century, highlighted unflatteringly by – most notably – men’s violence against women. As such, Passage, currently running at the Baxter Theatre, is achingly relevant. This stirring social commentary in the vein of a ‘dramedy’ aims to address the racial, divisive, misogynistic and homophobic aspects of modern masculinity in which African tradition is steeped. The problem: how to address these complex paradigms in a society where there is a tremendous push toward non-toxic masculinity and elevated stages of gender consciousness? Thando Doni, one of South Africa’s up-and-coming directors, seems well up to the task.
Gender is an incredibly complicated issue, and the ways in which we have come to understand it are myriad, fascinating, and worthy of celebration. Passage details the daily external conflicts faced by South African men, examines the stumbling blocks youths encounter as they progress to adulthood, and attempts to dispel the myth of young men being driven solely by their hormones. Essentially South African, the play follows an alliance between five men of different cultural backgrounds as it highlights local traditions, bro-centric solidarity and multi-culturalism in the primary languages of the country. Passage shifts the viewer between feelings of profound angst, compassion, and exasperation. Crucially, it invokes a response.
The production opens with an evocative image both bestial and grotesque, played with a remarkable degree of diligence by Daniel Richards in a scene which seems to allude to the traditional animalistic tendencies of men. Much of the comic relief depends on Aphiwe Menziwa’s proverbial joker, whose ill-tempered yet self-deprecating humour offers a welcoming diversion to a production which at times can be heavily emotive. The show is stolen, however, by Mkhuseli Tafane who brings an invigorating presence as the tribal mentor of the clan, and the moral compass on which much of the cohesiveness of this tale depends.
The trouble with Passage lies mainly with its vague depiction of compelling male concepts. Too many questions are left unanswered during certain segments, and while the direction team has tackled a good range of topical subject matters such as how men deal with homosexuality and circumcision, the play fails to actively follow through far enough. At times, Passage takes an active and aggressive stance against hegemonic male ideals, yet at the same time it glorifies the archaic and traditional paradigms of masculinity.
Lighting designer Bennie Arendse’s expert touch merges perfectly with set and costume coordinator Chalatsane in a collaborative effort that reigns supreme as it captures the mood of each scene with fade in-out hazes and midnight blues on an open stage. Lighting plays a fundamental role in Passage, not only to accentuate the striking facial and body profiles of the actors, but also to set the tone for the interchangeable platforms.
Ultimately, Passage takes an optimistic approach which proposes that men could in fact benefit from the removal of calcified standards of old masculinity. This is a production which should be emphasized especially for the younger generation.
Benn Van Der Westhuizen
Passage runs at the Baxter Theatre from 6 to 22 March 2014.