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Subtitles’ failure highlights my own

Last night could have been so different. If only Eskom had not failed us, if only the subtitles on Hamba Nam Ndipheleke, the play in isiXhosa on at the Baxter Theatre, had not failed, if only I had not failed to learn to speak isiXhosa.

I was so looking forward to experiencing a show in isiXhosa (but in English, of course). We were expecting subtitles, but loadshedding had somehow scrambled the Baxter’s computer system and they failed on the night. Yup, not one word of English in 2 hours.

Having the shoe on the other foot is quite a revelation. Navigating the world in a language I picked up around the dining room table has always been so easy. It was uncomfortably interesting to have that bridge to the mainland of inclusion cut off temporarily.

The production frequently draws on the non-verbal languages of context and caricature Photograph: Xolani Tulumani

I was at sea without a translation of Hamba Nam Ndipheleke (Come With Me, Accompany Me), the stage debut of the isiXhosa setwork by Nompumezo Buzani. I am ashamed to say that my two rather poor efforts at learning the language of the majority of people around me have hardly got me past What is your name? and Hello, how are you? [Facepalm]

Not that this was a waste of 2 hours on a cold and rainy late winter’s night. Quite apart from the thinking I was forced to do about entitlement and my side of the bargain living in this beautiful land of someone else’s forefathers, the play was visually lovely. Even without access to the words, I experienced many textures and feelings: joy and pain, disappointment, hope and shock.

Directed by Bulelani Mabutyana, the production is visually very striking and frequently draws on those non-verbal  languages of context and caricature. The message about the collusion of good men in the patriarchy and misogyny that is poisoning our world for women, young and old, was clear, and it stung. So, too, did the inescapable shadows of the damage wrought by apartheid’s labour migration and Bantustan systems.

It was also (and how do I say this without sounding patronising) very interesting to see black people playing roles of black people.

It felt comfortable and authentic, even when the caricatures were deliciously exaggerated, as often demanded by the Kafka-esque narrative (or should I say Mda-esque?). If the roles were reversed, how many white people could convincingly play the role of our black neighbours. How little we know!

Lindokuhle Melap and Mihlali Bele Photograph: Xolani Tulumani

My friend Phumlani whispered in my ear every so often to try to help me understand pivotal moments. Most of the time, though, she was too gripped by the play. Even then, her responses gave me some insight into what was clearly familiar and yet so damn triggering.

That this is a Grade 10 set work reveals courage and honesty in the South African education system. Wouldn’t I love to be a fly on the wall in some of those classes when they talk about the normalisation of misogyny and violence in the context of the poisoned power dynamics in our society. Ouch! I hope the message for many is this is what is; it is not what must be.

Hamba Nam Ndipheleke’s author, Nompumezo Buzani, says she hopes “that the South African child will learn something from this story”. Other works by Buzani, who is a nurse as well as an author and playwright, include: Imida, Take me Home (2017), Igobel’esandleni (staged at the Women in Art Manyano Festival in August 2022) and an adaptation of Cry Freedom for the 2023 National Arts Festival.

She says: “My journey as a writer has not been an easy one. It started at the foot of Hogsback Mountains, along the valleys of Tyhume River in a small rondavel where I had a cast of four, my sisters. Back then we had a big audience of one, our mother.”

The case features members the Magnet Theatre Youth Company Photograph: Xolani Tulumani

Hamba Nam Ndipheleke was adapted by Anele Kose and Bulelani Mabutyana. The cast features the Magnet Theatre Youth Company: Azola Mkhabile, Buhle Stefane, Kuhle Myathaza, Lindokuhle Melaphi, Mihlali Bele, Molupi Lepeli, Nosiphiwo Ndabeni, Siphenathi Siqwayi, Sipho Kalako, Thabo Mkenene and Wendy Mrali. Miliswa Mbandazayo is the dramaturge and translator, with original music composed by musical director, Bongani Magatyana, who also performs live, alongside musician Khangelani Twani. Set design is by Patrick Curtis, lighting by Franky Steyn, costumes by Asiphe Lili and audio-visual content creation by Xolani Tulumani.

The play is staged by arrangement with Dalro (Pty) Ltd and is made possible by the support of the City of Cape Town and Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.

Hamba Nam Ndipheleke is on at the Pam Golding Theatre at The Baxter to September 30. Booking through Webtickets, online or at Pick n Pay stores. Ticket prices R90 and R60 for school groups.

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Alison von During
Alison von During
16th September 2023 12:44 pm

Beautifully written, a humbling experience not to understand the language and have to work harder to follow, no doubt the visual and sensory experience equally enhanced.

16th September 2023 1:12 pm

Thanks Siobhan enjoyed your review. It’s strange to feel like a foreigner in your own country because you don’t understand the language spoken. We ought continue learning other languages to broaden our experience of the world around us.

Charles Geffen
Charles Geffen
16th September 2023 1:12 pm

After reading this great crit I’d have easily booked and supported this production but grid unreliability would ruin my evening too if this happened and evening would be a total waste of time. ANC prioritizes political power over citizens. Eskom’s issues are a result of ANC policy failures. So disappointing. Shame on ANC and Eskom.

16th September 2023 2:05 pm

Your open and honest message is refreshing and a critical ingredient in the ongoing journey of learning the language of love, which (should) unify us all. Good theatre, as described in your article, has a way of conveying the heartfelt essence of things more than mere words could. Kudos to the playwright, actors and production team, who conveyed their intended and important message, in spite of obstacles, cultivating such reflection. I wish the production much success and wide exposure. Kudos also to a talented (English) writer for this beautiful account. On Eskom I will say that many are now experiencing what too many endure as their norm. The economic implications affect the vulnerable most, which is pure tragedy. May our energy crisis inspire the necessary reflection and action in those of better means – much like our talented storytellers, celebrated in this publication, inspired you. Addressing human rights violations and social ills should be as pertinent to humans as securing basic amenities for all. Nurturing the gender that nurtures society is a no brainer as the first step towards attaining social justice. Note to self: learn to speak better isiXhosa, but above all, fluency in the language of love.

Dr Shaun
Dr Shaun
18th September 2023 4:14 am

Amongst the many deeply evocative perspectives here, the I found this statement particularly insightful: “that this is a Grade 10 set work reveals courage and honesty in the South African education system”, in stark contrast to the old South African education system some of us experienced.

18th September 2023 10:02 am

This review had me itching to watch the production, especially without the subtitles. Even when things go awry the art can remain intact and even enhanced. I appreciate your take and for taking the experience in stride.

19th September 2023 6:49 pm

It sounds like the language barrier has allowed you to capture the true essence of the artform: the ability to make you FEEL. I love how despite not understanding the language, you were able to experience the joy, sadness, humour and vibrancy of the story at hand. Stunning review.

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