NY Theater Review by Susan Hasho
A shack in the Soweto Township near Johannesburg, South Africa—is a scene which has been depicted often, particularly from playwright Athol Fugard. We are used to seeing the dirt, the tin shacks and the poverty depicted in Africa. And even used to the bare bones of relationships that exist in that kind of life in extremis. In Ndebele Funeral, though, this life is cut into with song and dance and poetry which surprises, and often elevates the experience. Combining grief and celebration, the playwright Zoey Martinson gives us a way out of predictable response and draws us into the soulful love that exists in this poverty.
Daweti (Zoey Martinson, playwright and actress), is living in a space with cardboard floors and as we first see her, she is sliding out from a decorated box lying on the floor. Jan (Jonathan David Martin), a peckish white government inspector, roams the area looking for an address and she directs him on. Daweti then gets a visit from an old friend Thabo (Yusef Miller) who went to University with her. Thabo is concerned about her failing health, and Daweti wants no sympathy, no help and wants to stay in her home and die in the beautiful box she is making from government supplies.
The choreographer Sduduzo Ka-Mbili has worked with gumboot dancing from the mines in Jo’burg to provide joyous and spontaneous dances for the actors in partnership with Cuereston Burge. The musical team of composers Spirits Indiginous and musical director Tuelo Minah create an eruption of beat and music which moves us away from grim reality and brings us closer to the joy in the deep friendship Daweti and Jan have with each other. Neither has fulfilled their dreams or promise; and as beautifully drawn here by the playwright, neither evoke pity in us.
The government worker returns and relentlessly confronts Daweti about her use of the government materials and she relentlessly holds onto her right to use them as she sees fit. Thabo works to protect her and she forces the situation to a head. The plot moves to a surprising end in which each character has a strong, inevitable part. This play, in an unusual way, talks about bondage and freedom post-Apartheid. Even in this time, choosing one’s death seems to be one of the only freedoms; and allowing this choice becomes one of the most loving actions.
This company of actors is brilliantly connected and powerful; the play is rich and bare-boned; and the direction by Awoye Timpo taut and powerful. Ndebele Funeral is a true achievement of richness and humanity. It plays through Sunday, October 5.
*Photo: Hunter Canning
SEP 11 – OCT 5 Tue, Wed & Thu 7:30, Fri 8:30
Sat 2:30 & 8:30, Sun 3:30 59w59.org