Karoo Moose left my feelings confused. A huge chunk of my heart was filled with that overwhelming joy of experiencing an exceptional piece of theatre, that flood of reassurance that South Africa is home to some of the world’s phenomenal artists. Yet I also felt very odd.
Lara Foot, the writer and director of Karoo Moose, has reclaimed her spot in my list of favourite and extraordinary playwrights. The cast: Zoleka Helesi, Chuma Sopotela, Mdu Kweyama, Mfundo Tshazibane, Thami Mbongo and Bongile Mantsai, have chameleon-like acting skills. It is all too clear why this play has bagged 15 top South African theatre awards since its premier nearly a decade ago.
But the odd feeling was persistent. It was something between boiling anger and extreme sadness. While it is perfectly delivered with enchanting acting and engaging narration, Karoo Moose is a story of some ugly truths. Dysfunctional homes, broken father figures and impoverished communities are amongst the dreaded issues that the story explores.
Set in a small village somewhere in the Karoo, the story centres on the struggles of a teenage girl, Thozama (Chuma Sopotela). Thozama’s father, Jonas (Mfundo Tshazibane) is deep in gambling debts. Out of fear for his own life, he obeys the demands of his creditor – the play’s villain, Kola, played by Thami Mbongo – and offers his daughter as compensation for his debts. In a cleverly portrayed scene Kola and his criminal friends gang brutally rape Thozama and she falls pregnant. As if this is not enough of a tragedy for a teenage girl, Kola continues to harass and torture Thozama and her family even after the baby is born.
When Kola abducts and molests Thozama’s baby, the play shows its heart as a revenge tragedy. Full of a rage that is vividly felt by the audience, Thozama confronts Kola with dramatic consequences.
And the moose? I know you have been wondering. At one stage in the play an “evil beast” – later identified as a moose – finds its way into the village and wreaks havoc. The villagers fail to catch it but the young Thozama manages to handle the moose on her own and slits its throat before taking it home to prepare a meal for her family. The metaphor of good triumphing over evil is clear, though there is also a hint that Thozama is powered by the boiling anger she feels as a rape victim.
The portrayal of the moose is a moment of theatrical brilliance. Tree branches in shape of horns carried on Kweyana’s shoulders signify the large frame of the animal. Kweyana portrays its reckless movements through dance moves that are hard to place in a genre. But this was just one highlight from a cast of actors who can change to totally different characters in a blink of an eye. In Karoo Moose, the actors play as an ensemble, switching from man, to woman, to child regardless of their own gender and age. Sometimes they even swap roles without causing confusion. The minimal props and interesting costumes by Koos Marais enhance their talent beautifully.
It is tempting to say that Karoo Moose is an alluring portrayal of a heartwrenching South African reality but it is so much more than that. Set in South Africa, this is a story of harsh global realities, told in a magical manner by incredible storytellers.
Karoo Moose (Age restriction: 13+) runs until 24 September 2016 at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio, Cape Town.