Mbeki's deliberations dramatised
When addressing the nation, former president Thabo Mbeki was as capable of moving verbal pyrotechnics as he was of being obscure and impenetrable.
In a piece in the Chimurenga Chronic, novelist Imraan Coovadia writes that: “The more direct the problem he [Mbeki] encounters, the more abstract, allusive and indirect his language and the more indeterminate his intention.”
Now the writings and speeches of Mbeki (well, some of them) have become the subject of a new experimental play, Rhetorical, written by playwrights Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom and Aubrey Sekhabi. The play—an initiative of the Siemens Stiftung, Kaaitheater (Brussels), the Market Theatre, the Festival/Tokyo and the Teatro Sarmiento (Buenos Aires)—draws on his “I Am an African” and “Two Nations” speeches, his 2006 Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture and his resignation speech.
These speeches reference the highs and lows—and whatever occupies the two extremes—of the Mbeki years—that famous paean to pan-African identity, his elegy on a riven nation and the clipped, understated monologue he delivered to a shocked nation after his recall by the ANC in 2008.
The play, directed by Grootboom, features Presley Chweneyagae as Dada Mokone, a silhouette of a Julius Malema figure, and Fezile Mpela as Thabo Mbeki. Tsholo Monedi, Phumzile Gumede and Ontiretse Mayentsa play supporting roles.
Mbeki took great care with the written word and went to great lengths while working on his speeches—not that he was always able to make his point, as is conveyed in some of the examples used in Coovadia’s piece.
Man of too many words
For instance, when Mbeki faced removal from office, he saw a “pernicious tendency in our country of the falsification of reality to advance the particular agendas of forces that are opposed to our movement and the national democratic revolution. I argued that we face a permanent task to chain the canards.” Chain the canards?
I sat down with Grootboom to get a sense of his new project. Rhetorical is a world away from his usual fare of sordid sex and crime that the young director explored in Cards and Foreplay. He admits to being fascinated by Mbeki but also acknowledges that the former president didn’t have the rhetorical flourish and exuberance of, say, Robert Mugabe or Martin Luther King.
And some of the speeches, although showing great erudition and worldliness, don’t lend themselves to the stage easily. Although the memorable and catchily titled “I Am an African” speech has been sampled in house music and in many ways defines the Mbeki years, how does a director put that on stage?
Another challenge was how to make a play about Mbeki’s speeches without making it sound like propaganda.
“A teenager who is politically apathetic should be able to come and watch this play and think it’s important to his life,” Grootboom said.
From words to actions
I watched a dry run of the play, which has been in gestation for five weeks. Although still a work in progress ahead of its staging in Belgium next week, some scenes show an imaginative mind at work.
In the chasm referenced by Mbeki in the “Two Nations” speech, for instance, lumpen elements act out their dreams and fantasies in GP (no, not Gauteng province but Gangsta’s Paradise). And in the uncertainty that followed the dithering on whether HIV causes Aids, Thabo Rapoo’s choreography memorably re-enacts the courtship and illicit affairs of men who live far away from their spouses.
The world of formal politics is relatively new territory for Grootboom but he manages to hold his own.
Rhetorical runs at the Market Theatre until November 20. Book at Computicket.