Thursday, August 1, 2013

Nkala’s Theatre of Trauma and Testimony – Enacting The Crossing

Samuel Ravengai
When Jonathan Khumbulani Nkala left Zimbabwe in 2002 for South Africa, he was a nonentity in the arts circles. He wasn’t a consecrated artist. Indeed, he spent a lot of time playing with his friend, Jacob (now late), reading old newspapers, daydreaming, fetching firewood, fasting and praying in the outskirt woodlands of Kwekwe. In the evenings, he taught himself playing a guitar made from wood, twine and used oil cans. He could play this homemade guitar all night to soothe himself from the pains and trauma of the Zimbabwean crisis. This was the greatest cultural capital that Nkala possessed, which was based on the Mbizo playing culture. He could sing, dance and play a variety of musical instruments. He learnt these skills not from school, but by observing and copying one another in the township and even participation in church praise and worship sessions. The play which he eventually wrote, The Crossing, is characterized by a number of church choruses and songs. Although he was poor and unemployed, he was rich in embodied knowledge, his greatest asset when he crossed illegally into South Africa in 2002.
 
When Jonathan Nkala returned to Zimbabwe in 2009, he was an instant celebrity. He had written his first one person play, The Crossing, which he brought to the 2009 Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA). He performed the play under the direction of the renowned South African director, Bo Petersen. All The Crossing shows were fully booked and each performance normally ended with a standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience across the racial divide.
 
Due to public demand, the performance had another life after the official closure of HIFA on the 30th of April 2009. The performance moved to Mbira Centre in Harare, from 8 to 10 May 2009, where it was equally well received.
 
Before coming to HIFA, The Crossing had been in existence for three years, during which period Nkala performed it at The Garage Theatre, Hout Bay, in Cape Town in 2006 under its first title, The Journey. It returned to The Garage Theatre two times in May 2007 and September 2008 for a single performance. Between 2009 and 2010, The Crossing featured at seven arts festivals; Infecting the City Festival in January 2009, HIFA in April 2009, Grahamstown National Arts Festival in July 2009, ECC Festival in October 2009, Ikwezi Festival in March 2010, Out the Box Festival in March 2010 and Global Dancefest, New Mexico in the USA in 2010.
 
Today, Jonathan Nkala is an accomplished playwright, performer and screen actor. He published his play with Junkets Press, which includes two other one person plays, The Bicycle Thief and Faith in Love. The new collection is titled Cockroach: A Trilogy of Plays. When it became necessary to pursue acting at a professional level, Nkala hooked up with Bo Petersen who both coached and directed him. A combination of Nkala’s playing culture and the new psychological acting technique produced a brand of performance that has made Nkala who is today. Nkala has since appeared in at least one television commercial and two international films; Disgrace and String Caesar. Jonathan Nkala joins Bart Wolffe in the fold of one-person show playwrights, making the trio the only Zimbabwean published one-person show specialists.
 
How did Nkala become a successful artist? Nkala’s accomplishment is a story of suffering, a story of trauma and the testimony of that tragedy. It is a story of his problems while travelling from Zimbabwe to South Africa.
 
Most plays that give testimonies do not necessarily involve the actual persons who were involved in the tragedy (survivors). Cont Mhlanga’s Dabulap, for example, is a narrative involving fictional characters, but handling a real life problem of border jumping into South Africa. Blessing Hungwe’s Burn Mukwerekwere Burn explores the life of two Zimbabweans while living in the Western Cape during the 2008 xenophobic attacks. Of course, the characters are fictional, but living through a historically verifiable period. The same could be said about Thabani Moyo’s Immigrants which premiered at HIFA 2013. A closely related story to that of The Crossing is a European documentary play called Aalst, played by two actors, but based on court transcriptions of the trial of two parents who murdered their two children in a hotel room. While the documentary story is based on a real life event, it is performed by actors.
 
The Crossing is a story with a difference. The performer is the same person who experienced the events of the story. Jonathan Nkala is a survivor of a series of traumatic events. He is therefore a primary witness of the things he saw, noted, heard, observed and touched. He bore witness to the tragic events and is now testifying before the audience on what happened. The audience becomes second-order witnesses. Thus what is framed as theatre is actually not theatre, but reality that has been recreated by a survivor. This is a moment of ruin, of dematerialization where the actor ceases to exist and there is the presence of the the real person who experienced the events – what seemingly is dramatic fraud indeed! While this may be taken as dramatic cheating, Antjie Krog thinks that the performance is fiction:
So the story you tell is of somebody, it’s not you. It’s based on a lot of the experiences you have had – but you made choices of things you leave out and how to structure it, etc… This isn’t you… (Cited in Flockemann 2009: 217).
Nkala did not want to be an actor or writer; he wanted to make money selling wire and bead artefacts. When resources permitted he wanted to try his luck singing and performing music to his future audience. The Crossing came about because of a chance meeting between Nkala and an unnamed South African millionaire who wanted to commit suicide because of a pending divorce and problems with his business. When the millionaire saw how happy Nkala was while performing a skit to advertise his merchandise, he wondered how such a poor fellow could manage his life. He called Nkala aside and Nkala described his sojourn from Zimbabwe and how he had decided to celebrate the little joys of life instead of brooding over life’s challenges. The millionaire asked Nkala to write him this story so that he could refer to it if he felt like committing suicide. The Crossing came into being – to save someone’s life.
 
In the play Jonathan Nkala and Jacob, his friend, both Kwekwe residents, decide to cross the border into South Africa. After lying to their parents that they were going for prayers and then bring back firewood, they hitchhike to Beit Bridge. After disembarking at Beit Bridge, they gang up with 15 to 20 other border jumpers and travel for about 200 kilometres in soaring temperatures to a place called Chivara, where they thought it was safer to cross into South Africa. They are intercepted by local thugs called maguma-guma who steal money and other valuables from them at knife point. On crossing the Limpopo River in a makeshift boat, nicknamed the Titanic, Jacob falls off and perishes in the crocodile infested river. Another unnamed border jumper perishes the same way.
 
 
By the time Nkala is on the South African side, he no longer has shoes, shirt or trousers and, more tragically, his closest friend, Jacob. Nkala weeps bitterly. After a one week piece job at a tomato farm, Nkala proceeds to Johannesburg, but is dumped by a tomato truck driver at a gas station in Louis Trichardt without any more money. After walking for a long time, a Good Samaritan truck driver offers him a lift to Germiston and gives him money to catch a train to Johannesburg. There, he lives like a nomad with no fixed abode, surviving only on mulberries. Each time he knocks at a house, he is told ‘sorry we already have someone working for us’. The suffering continues until he meets one Margaret, whom he calls the ‘guardian angel’. She feeds him, pays him and gives him a place to sleep and opportunities for ‘networking’.
 
All this time, Nkala doesn’t have papers authorising him to stay in South Africa. He then decides to proceed to Cape Town in order to escape from Johannesburg Home Affairs officials who demand ‘a little something’ to process papers. On his way to Cape Town all hell breaks loose! A truck driver who initially accepts R50 as adequate transport fee parks the truck in the middle of nowhere and pulls out a gun. He threatens to kill Nkala if he doesn’t top up by an extra R30. The trucker swears at Nkala for a long time with Nkala equal to the task of pleading for mercy. They proceed with the journey with Nkala crouching on the cabin floor as punishment for having insufficient money. The trucker then throws Nkala out into the cold night when he decides to take a nap, while two other passengers enjoy a night’s rest on the cabin seats. On resuming the journey the abuse replays itself. On disembarking in Cape Town, Nkala is threatened with death by the trucker if he doesn’t call him back to offset the balance.  When he gets the papers from the home affairs office legalising his stay in South Africa, the South African police arrest him possibly to get ‘a little something’ to release him.
 
While all this sounds like a victimhood narrative, it is actually not at all. In between these sad stories Nkala throws jokes, humour and laughter. For example, while lying on the floor of the cabin almost being roasted by the heat from the engine, he listens to a conversation between the trucker and two other passengers and laughs at their jokes. In the midst of abuse, there is something pleasurable that Nkala chooses to focus on. This issue of humour is consistently present throughout the performance making Nkala a champion of fighting the enactment power by a happy insurrection. Thus Nkala’s frictions of encounter with other people are some kind of crucible which both burns and hardens, but purifying to his character. It is out of these difficulties that the best out of Nkala can be achieved. He is now a playwright, performer, singer and screen actor.
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