The enervated pall which hangs over the exclusive confines of Hilton College in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands is punctured by the sound of laughter and horseplay.
Gathered in the school’s music department are the 16-member cast of Feast Kakhulu!, which will be performed at the Hilton Arts Festival this weekend. As they clear the rehearsal space, the youngsters’ energy appears anathema to that of the studiously sedate young men who traverse the manicured, cemetery-like lawns of this 135-year-old school.
Aside from one, these are all first-time actors — all have been drawn from the impoverished areas that surround Hilton College to participate in a development project hosted by the festival. After a similarly veined technical mentorship last year, this year’s drama and music project is being conducted by local actors Ellis Pearson and Sdumo Mtshali, with Englishman Max Webster and Mia Theil Have from Denmark.
“I was surprised at how white this festival was — it was a bit of a shock coming to South Africa so many years after apartheid and seeing most of the blacks at the festival were either working in the kitchen or tending the estate,” says Webster of his first visit to the festival to perform last year.
The cast has been working together for three weeks and this is its first complete run-through of Feast Kakhulu! — a “simple story” of the return of Thembi (an isiZulu name which means hope) from Johannesburg, where she has been studying medicine, and “carrying the hopes of her rural village with her”, according to Webster.
The piece starts with the improvisational sounds of a village awakening. Found materials are used to create the early morning music of people scratching around and getting down to chores.
The women break out into song, the village quickens its activity: chopping wood and washing clothes. “We’ve tried to use the indigenous African cultural movements that the kids are familiar with and turn them into their own actions,” says Webster.
At times it is obvious that the cast has had no previous acting experience: member’s attention span is sometimes short, cohesiveness has to be fine-tuned and some still appear self-conscious. Yet the enthusiasm is tangible.
Ellis is encouraging the village drunk to rediscover a comedic formula he has used to greet Thembi on her return: “Theatre is hard like that sometimes. You can find it the first time and then sometimes you can’t. An actor, a good actor, is able to find it, remember it, and keep it. You’ve got to hold on to it,” he exhorts.
The village drunk responds by not only rediscovering this chemistry, but also embellishing it with a new quip. “You’ve got to remember that, and keep it,” says Ellis.
For many of the participants, the project is less about finding soapie stardom one day, but rather the experience that has allowed them an avenue to appreciate and question the human condition a bit more, while tapping into skills disused.
“I lacked confidence at the beginning, especially because you have to be another person, which is very hard. But I think I’m getting better, and these guys are professionals,” says Ayanda Ngobese (21), who is working in a peer education programme in the area. Ngobese, like many of the cast, has roots attached to Hilton College: her grandmother worked here as a cleaner.
“I hope more people from Hilton village will come to the festival,” says Thobile Mwelase (19) “because the play deals with HIV and in the village people still say it is only a white person’s disease.”
Feast Khakulu! is performed on September 13 at 2.45pm and on September 14 at 2.30pm at the Old Museum, Hilton College.
The Hilton Arts Festival runs from September 12 to 14 at Hilton College. Other highlights of the festival include John Kani’s Nothing But the Truth; I, Claudia, written by Kristen Thomas and directed by Lara Bye; David Mamet’s Oleanna; Yellowman, winner of the Kanna Best Production at the 2008 KKNK; The Dog’s Bollocks and Rob van Vuuren is Ron van Wuuren. Bookings at Computicket