“Sit properly!” Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi points at me with an accusatory finger from the small stage. I uncross my legs and straighten my back. He walks to the other side of the stage. “Chest out!” The guy in the second row drops his shoulders and puffs out his chest. Authority has been established. We are here to listen. And what a story there is to be told.
Memory is sold as children’s theatre. Something to take the kids to on a lazy afternoon. I’m not sure if this simple, yet profound play spoke to my inner child, or reminded me of a time when make-believe was real. It is told in the style of a children’s book, a fable that tells of man’s relationship with the great African animal kingdom. But instead of telling us how Zebra got its stripes how Lion became the king of the animals, Memory tells a modern tale. It tells of our relationship with the elephant and, soberingly, why we keep on poaching elephants for their tusks.
On stage, Mkhwanazi is a drill sergeant who heads up a team of rangers. As with a good physical theatre performance, the performers draw on their bodies and movements to paint the scene; the props are minimal and simplistic, the lighting basic. They hear of an elephant that has been poached and like African superheroes they run to the helicopter to come to the rescue. In one extraordinary fluid movement they become the helicopter – one performer balancing on Mkhwanazi’s shoulders, a makeshift propeller of a stick with a rope on it swinging through the air. The other two run behind them with tiny handdrums, the tock-tock-tock beating out the sound of the helicopter flying. I felt like a kid again… Anything is possible! I was so moved by this simplistic beauty, by this honest creativity devoid of modern technology, that my eyes welled up with tears.
The rangers watch over the imagined body of the elephant and sing to her, to Mama Africa, Mama Memory – a song that hits straight to the heart. And so the story starts. Mkhwanazi brings them together, and as they warm their hands over an imaginary fire he starts to tell them the legend of how Man used to live in harmony with animals. The four performers become the African Savannah. They hiss and dive and crawl. They are snakes, wildebeest, baboons and rhinos. They drink water with their buck friends and run away in anxiety as a lion hunts one down and grabs him by the neck. Imaginations are running wild. We are transported from the small City Hall stage into the African wild. You can smell grass and dirt and blood, you can see the fields changing colour as the sun rises over it. As in nature, nothing is rushed, there is nowhere to go and simply observing the moment is enough.
I was so enraptured by the scenes in front of me, so completely convinced by the performers in their animal roles that I forgot what I was watching. But with some comedic interjection the scene rolls back to the four people sitting around the fire, and the next chapter starts, of how Man became greedy and made an unrealized deal with Elephant. And so began Man’s resentment towards this mother of animals.
Memory might be sold as family theatre, but you don’t need kids to have a reason to go see this. In a way, this kind of theatre is the purest form of storytelling, as it leaves a significant part to the observer’s imagination and leaves you with strong message to take home.
Mkhwanazi is a master of physical theatre, his presence and performance striking. The other performers could benefit from a bit more rehearsal but with their extraordinary voices and obvious love for theatre, it is but a matter of time for the piece to be flawless. And this is a piece of theatre I hope and trust will make it to many more stages. Go, leave your adult greed at home for one hour and be a kid again.
Memory runs at the Cape Town City Hall 30 September to 4 October 2014 as part of the Cape Town Fringe Festival.