As audiences filed into the Rhodes University Theatre on July 3 for the first of three performances of Sabela, a dance piece by 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner (Dance) Thandazile Radebe, silent performers bearing what looked like identification papers for aliens stood before a board reading “Property of society”.
The performers stood eerily still, their gazes blank, evoking a crowded, modern-day human zoo. It was the last bit of silence the unwitting audience would hear, before being launched at full throttle into the all-consuming furnace of the main performance.
Sabela, a 65-minute exploration into the weight of people’s names and all the political minefields they can represent, is a world within a world, plunging viewers into the darkness that is migration and its associated power struggles.
Joined on stage by performers Phumlani Nyanga, Micca Manganye and Thabo Kobeli, Radebe channels rage, chaos and frustration in a work that evokes the torture of bureaucracy and the latent pain of institutionalisation. Matthew McFarlane, a guitarist with pedals seated at the far corner of the room, conjured up the accompanying, dystopian soundtrack.
To call the work violent would be appropriate, but for all its relentlessness there is a cathartic energy underpinning the surface layers of Sabela, making it an evocative, if discomforting, work. Watching the performance in the thick of the National Arts Festival, one got a sense that Sabela was also a somewhat polarising but necessary work.
Given that South Africa is a country named for a geographical location and nothing else, there was perhaps no place more apt for the staging than at a university still coming to terms with the effect of the #RhodesMustFall campaign.
A moment that communicated Sabela’s power hit me midway through the performance. Radebe and her team of performers played roll call with the audience, invoking the meaning of the word sabela, the response when your name is called.
“If your name begins with a T,
“If you have ever been denied a visa, please sit down.”
“If you have never changed your name, please stand up.”
“If you have a criminal record, please sit down.”
Again: “If you have a criminal record, please sit down.”
It was all fun and games until, perhaps striking at the heart of Sabela’s premise, I had to own up to my own actions — actions I had not confronted for the better part of 10 years.
Deciding, perhaps absently, to sit down, it felt as if my conscience had caught up with me, as it did the night police came knocking down my door, interrupting a sleep that, given the nature of the crime, I probably did not deserve.
Records, criminal or otherwise, become us. The prelude to Sabela, in which the cast, dressed in a uniform that evokes slavery, stand as if on an auction block with documentation in their hands, brings this point home with a directness that doesn’t prepare the audience for what is to come.
Commissioned for the festival following Radebe’s 2016 nod for this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist award, Sabela is less about names than it is about the emotional and physical stigma of being othered.
It is the execution — immersive, consistently disturbing and chaotic — that creates the feeling of being consumed by the abyss of bureaucracy.
Radebe’s stage, a minimalist cavern fitted with chipboard on its sides and fluorescent lights that periodically flicker on and off, evokes the feeling of a torture chamber that could be a placeholder for anywhere where “name and ID” are a prerequisite for service or entry.
Radebe explained that, initially, she had conceived a somewhat more celebratory piece but one that looked into the dark side of naming rituals. “There are ugly names that reflect our parents’ experiences at that particular time when they are having the baby, like abo Matlakala, abo Nongendi, which means one who will never work …
“But honestly, it is not only your name that defines or shapes your identity, culture and experiences,” she said. “Migration also has a large influence on that … so the work ended up moving from celebrating names. There is actually so much darkness that come[s] with people’s identities … You can actually be denied a visa because your name is associated with a certain geographical location.”
The distance between the performers on stage and the audience is Radebe’s way of alluding to this sense of alienation. Perhaps nothing can better illustrate the personal significance of this work than the fact that Radebe went by the name of Sonia for much of her dance career. Sonia is a name given to her by her grandmother, but one that does not appear on her identity document.
On some level, the genesis of Sabela has to do with the township Radebe lives in, namely Diepsloot. Researching the piece, it was to her neighbours that she turned, building an impressive body of research that seems to have worked its way into her and her company’s body movements.
Perhaps the most moving aspect of Sabela is how it manages to transport the audience into bureaucracy’s many strongholds simultaneously. It’s a frightening and jarring feeling, but one that clearly originates from a place of empathy.
Sabela will show at the 969 Festival at Wits on July 21. Ticket available at Webtickets