This year marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Barney Simon, the great theatre writer-director who cofounded the Market Theatre in 1976 and developed workshopped theatre in South Africa.
He brought gritty social realism and the “language of the streets” to the stage in his People (1973) and the later Score Me the Ages (1989), as well as an invigorating magical or fantastical element to works such as his huge hit Woza Albert! (1981), workshopped with Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa and destined to tour the world. He also adapted the work of authors as disparate as Ellen Khuzwayo and Herman Charles Bosman for the stage.
Earlier this year the Baxter Theatre paid tribute to Simon with a retrospective of five productions. Now the Market presents Cincinnati: Scenes from City Life, directed by Clive Mathibe. As part of a Market Theatre programme, Mathibe was mentored by Vanessa Cooke, one of the play’s original cocreators and performers.
Cincinnati was developed by Simon with a cast of eight and first performed in 1979. It centres on a louche bar/club in Johannesburg’s Fordsburg district, then (as now) a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures, but then one of very few remaining after the apartheid regime destroyed Sophiatown and most of Fietas. It was an area in which Simon and his collaborators could explore the interactions of mostly poor people thrust together on the streets and in the bars on one of Jo’burg’s edges.
In a form based on that of Austrian dramatist Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde (1900), the eight characters of the cast rotate through a series of one-on-one encounters with each other. This might be one reason Mathibe was asked to direct the revival, echoing as it does his previous work in theatre.
In 2011, Mathibe, who has also worked in video and TV, presented his play Eight Minuets at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. It was about four women, with their four attendant spirits, moving in a slow dance around each other.
“The play makes use of physical theatre and dance and incorporates a cappella singing and music which was composed by Mathibe himself,” said Cue, the festival newspaper. It quoted him as saying: “I choose to combine physical theatre and movement because I believe in a play you need to appeal to all the senses. Some things are said better physically than in words.”
The Mail & Guardian spoke to Mathibe before Cincinatti’s opening.
What drew you to doing this revival of Cincinnati?
When James Ngcobo invited me to do it, I was excited. I’d be the second director of the play – since Barney Simon and the original cast did it in 1979. And I hadn’t done theatre in a while, though I’d long been wanting to get back to theatre. So it was exciting, and with Vanessa Cooke as my mentor, we started casting in April.
This play was workshopped in the late 1970s, to develop the characters and bring the voice of the time onstage; now it’s a script on a page. How did you deal with that?
When you read the script now, and you encounter these characters, they are multidimensional. It’s exciting to do a play like this; these are difficult characters to play. It’s not the theatre of the absurd or Shakespeare, it’s real people, South African people, in a specific time and place. Even the language – the words of the time, kif and so on – was a challenge.
Does that mean the play has become a kind of period piece?
Maybe, but we have reworked it in other ways. For me, that was the next question: Why would an audience come and watch Cincinnati in 2015? The play presented a challenge in terms of structure. As the title has it, it’s “scenes from city life” – there’s no linear structure. My thing was: How to knit this thing together?
The scenes lend themselves to different worlds, and the structure is not linear, so we’ve created a parallel world too. Between the different scenes we created what we’ve been calling “adverts” – short political statements or images, taken from between then and today, to bridge the gap between 1979 and now.
Race, for instance. The club in Cincinnati is important to the times, because places like that were among the few where people could come together, regardless of race, regardless of sexual orientation. Today, race is still an issue, but in a different way. So much has changed and yet so much has stayed the same. We use these inserts to relate Cincinnati to today, things like how some white people are feeling pushed out, say.
It’s a great play. And I’m so grateful to Barney Simon and the original cast, who put it together, for structuring it in a way that allows me space to place my own voice in there.
Cincinatti runs until September 13 at the Laager Theatre at the Market until September 13