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African magic

Adapting our stories for the stage affirms our heritage. This isn’t a passion for me — it’s an obsession.” Janice Honeyman, multiform show maker, is discussing her current project, Madiba Magic, a bright, bold compendium of African tales that debuts as part of the action-packed programme at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown next week.Madiba Magic is a project made for Honeyman’s particular powers. The tales are drawn from the book of the same name released by Tafelberg in November last year, being, as the sub-title has it, Nelson Mandela’s favourite stories for children. The great man chose 32 stories from across Africa, because he — like the show’s director — wants to preserve our past and direct youngsters back to books.’When I heard about the book project, I immediately thought: ‘I want to stage that!’ The publishers were keen, the Baxter was keen, Grahamstown was keen — so here we are!”It is not surprising that the role players were enthused. The entertaining fables and mystical tales cry out for dramatic treatment, and Honeyman has the obvious credentials for the job. In her career spanning nearly 30 years, she has successfully adapted works by authors as diverse as Boccaccio, Dickens and Herman Charles Bosman for the stage and her celebrated annual pantomimes in Gauteng are always riots of wit and colour. Honeyman’s speciality is large-cast ensembles — think Hard Times, and more recently for the Baxter, AHM Scholtz’s Vatmaar — and stories that have broad appeal.’Madiba Magic is aimed at the whole family, granny, kids and all, and it has a pantomime feel and energy,” she says.Honeyman set about the adaptation by looking for a framing story in the collection ‘to unify the production and to bracket the action with a beginning and an end”. ‘This gives the show a satisfyingly circular feel,” she says. ‘I selected six tales in all — one each, from Uganda, Zimbabwe and Natiki [San], as well as South African: Venda, Nguni and Cape Dutch.’My framing story here is that of the Star Daughter — a creation legend from Malawi — which explains how the daughter of the sun, who thought only of her pretty jewels, came down to Earth and learned all about human beings and their bad behaviour. The other stories become events in her journey of self-discovery.”Honeyman’s bright eyes sparkle as she describes the engaging elemental imagery in her chief tale. ‘There are lovely things, such as her discarded jewels turning into the Milky Way. And the crescent moon, you see, is her face when turned away from we earthlings and our bad behaviour.”A deep love of the continent’s music fuelled Honeyman’s choices in Madiba Magic. ‘I have a huge collection of African music, and … I have drawn on many styles and sources. ‘There are sounds from South Africa — Jumpin’ Jive and Richard Mwamba’s Best of the African Connection — [as well as from] Senegal, Gambia … and the mad, brassy ‘high life’ club music from Ghana.”The show features a diverse cast of versatile actors and actresses who contribute ideas and images to the final production. ‘This is a made production, with everybody working together. For example, in today’s rehearsal a particular scene just wasn’t working. I got the cast to go out and collect sticks, and find another way into the scene. When they came back, they’d found red and yellow shakers, red and yellow being the colours of this scene, and the story came to life — carnival style.”A feature of Honeyman’s recent work is her use of found materials. The ‘shack chic” style of township interiors enlivens Madiba Magic. Honeyman chuckles: ‘I had the Baxter staff collecting cooldrink cans, mineral water bottles, cut-off hosepipes, bottle tops, old plastic bags … remember plastic bags?’Sarah Roberts, our designer, has proved that exciting things can be achieved with disposables. That’s a valuable message. And, yes, it’s good for the production budget!”

The National Arts Festival takes place in Grahamstown from June 27 to July 5.

Madiba Magic shows from July 3 to 5.

For details:

Tel: (046) 603 1103/1164


Mail & Guardian: Mail & Guardian Festival Page

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Guy Willoughby
Guest Author

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