Full circle with ‘the one who sings’ … and writes and heals

We remember Zolani Mahola performing with Shakira at the opening ceremony of the Football World Cup 2010, the eyes of South Africa, a broken country longing for healing, focused on the pint-sized powerhouse. What we don’t know is that her energy and joyfulness belied a lifetime of pain carried inside.

The lead singer of Freshlyground, our home-grown superstar, has come full circle and is sharing her own journey to healing in her one-woman show, The One Who Sings (from the Xhosa Lo Uculayo), which has just completed its first short run at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.

In barely more than an hour, Zolani tells of what broke her heart and tore her apart and takes the audience on a journey of healing as she makes herself whole again.

For the most part, time passes quickly, with life-changing moments, years, decades even, represented by a few lines, a poem, a song, a shawl, a skirt. But time also freezes sometimes as it takes a minute or two to have our worst fears confirmed.

The One Who Sings is the story of a family living in a bubble of love until that bubble is burst by the gravest of losses. It is the story of a happy little girl who loved to polish the stoep, who grew up to be a global superstar.

It is the story of innocence destroyed by a wicked step-mother and a lecherous step-brother and a world that wanted to confine people like her to backwaters and dark corners.

Zolani seems almost part-woman part-child as she shifts between her childhood self, the accomplished and adored songstress and diva, and the new Zolani, the transformational and motivational speaker.

She bares all, and hers is a shocking and sad story. Sadly, it is all-too familiar in South Africa. A cycle of bereavement and abuse, invisibility and not being good enough, culminating in the self-abuse of addiction.

She talks about being sent to a Catholic school, where she is forced to check in her name and mother tongue. As the English-speaking ‘Monica’, the confused teenager tries to get Mother Mary, to whom she is made to sing, to make good on her side of the bargain and listen to her prayers.

Zolani has always had the uncanny ability to make you feel like she is singing to you alone, whispering in your ear. Never more so than now when she is telling this very personal story in the intimacy of the Golden Arrow Studio in the Baxter complex.

Zolani’s fortunes changed quickly after she made it to UCT, to study drama. Freshlyground was formed and she was catapulted to another world.

She was successful and so famous, gigging all over the world, but she was still running away from the loss and the hurt of her childhood. She couldn’t escape the devil locked inside her so she turned to alcohol to keep the darkness from overwhelming the light.

In a particularly poignant scene, this courageous, wounded woman-child describes the war between darkness and light when as a mother she is forced to confront her addiction.

Sometimes it is hard to watch, we feel shocked, raw, cut up. Harder to imagine what it is like for Zolani to tell this story. But she holds us in her arms, soothing us in that reassuring way she has, talking to us individually, telling us it is going to be okay.

She comforts and lulls us also with the extraordinary range of songs, familiar and new, and the stories behind them. The old favourites get a new lease on life, they sound even better, now that we know what we know.

The new songs are sensational multi-genre numbers. There is that impressive vocal range that we know from Freshlyground’s repertoire, the soothing ballads, her voice thick as honey, and then suddenly the crystal clear voice of an angel cuts through. There is also some soul, quite a bit of rock, and a new husky gravelly rock chic emerging.

Zolani, the storyteller, takes us full circle, from a treasured memory of lying in the crook of her Mum’s arm learning to colour in the lines to holding her sons in the same way. Rites of passage indeed, but who needs the lines when you can colour in like this.

In telling her story so bravely she shows us that even the deepest wounds can heal. It is 9 years after the World Cup, that moment when a country desperate for healing focused on the pint-sized pop star, who hadn’t yet started her own journey of healing. Now she has and she is sharing it with us.

Director: Faniswa Yisa; Designer: Angela Nemov; Musical Director:  Aron Turest-Swartz

Siobhan Cassidy

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