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Playing with the energy

Brett Bailey’s play, iMumbo Jumbo, is putting a new slant on South African theatre. Janet Smith reports

Everything about Brett Bailey shrieks didgeridoo-blowing, teepee-weekending white boy who’s managed to coil his tongue around a Xhosa click and thinks he’s in heaven.

There’s something so flea-market fey about his short knitted waistcoat, small knitted cap and bald head that he makes you feel slightly uncomfortable. He looks far too much like a Zen gardener to deserve the distinctive honour of being a contender to transform South African theatre’s fortunes.

Yet Bailey’s bean-curd image doesn’t fail to expose him as an entrepreneur of entrancing wit and theatrical power. His new production, iMumbo Jumbo, caused rare excitement in Grahamstown this year as he put sangomas on stage to tell the story of Chief Gcaleka and the search for King Hintsa’s head.

Coming so soon after his unexpected hit debut, Zombie, iMumbo Jumbo could show that Bailey’s got the balls to produce a new kind of South African theatre. Fortunately, he’s enthusiastic about the irrelevant nature of other people’s snipes about curio theatre and their suspicions that all he wants is fame and his own private little circus.

iMumbo Jumbo spun into life after study in India, a thwarted attempt to study the trance-state in Nigeria and, finally, three months living with sangomas in the Eastern Cape, finding a home in a traditional community where his imagination was tickled by the entertaining story of Chief Gcaleka and the search for King Hintsa’s head.

Bailey wrote the piece with Gcaleka’s blessing and also out of a desire to relate its fabulous honesty as a moment in South African life. Writing iMumbo Jumbo offered him the pleasure of stating the importance of the visual message in theatre and of retelling a tale that attracted international attention – and scandal at home.

Bailey doesn’t talk about boundaries (why not put imams and priests on stage, he asks?), only about uncertainty, the existential quality he relishes most. He uses expressions like “millennia colliding” to describe how the world feels to his generation, a large proportion of whom are actively and constantly seeking new spiritual or mental stimulus. As a writer and observer, Bailey’s never asleep to the images and the sounds.

Inside a small first-floor rehearsal room, he’s rousing his post-prandial cast into energy – positive energy. A short burst of aerobics precedes the push-ups and breathing exercises. Someone’s ill, so they’re down a member. Bailey wants everyone in the room (not including me and the photographer) to join in the singing and energy, warning he would detect negative energy and the rehearsal simply wouldn’t flow.

Up, up, up … and the drumming begins from the extraordinarily deft wrists of a woman wearing hundreds of fabulously coloured beads in her hair. Bailey’s waistcoat comes off and he’s directing his cast, apparently into a trance state because, within minutes, two women are overcome and the room is crammed with noise and undeniable spiritual current.

He says one of the most important things he’s taken from Zombie and iMumbo Jumbo is the flight of his own prejudice, and the profound belief in ritual, not as a Western construct and not in the neo-hippie and rave movements, but as the foundation of life.

Bailey’s also absorbed a certain humility from Chief Gcaleka, of all people: “I’m quite arrogant, and I found myself actually listening to what he had to say, not wanting to present my point of view and disagree and be in charge.”

There’s a breeze of amusement in his tone when he talks about his mentor on iMumbo Jumbo. He sketches Gcaleka as fast-talking, passionate. Others say conman, some hero.

The energy of this production also reflects Bailey’s mood as a Capetonian in Gauteng – there’s a real feeling that his “light flows” turn of conversation is invested in bringing some joy into the darkness of Johannesburg. A saviour in beaded spectacles from the wings.

“I have quite a crude aesthetic,” he grins, “but I can see what’s beautiful underneath the shell. I feel like I’m coming here in celebration.”

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