Monday, June 1, 2015

Emma Tollman’s Review of No Good Friday

Whatever day of the week, No Good Friday written by Athol Fugard (1958) speaks ideological volumes to a 21st century Johannesburg audience. An iconic South African work, what, No Good Friday, directed by Samuel Ravengai (PhD Theatre and Performance) begs on a Tuesday evening is WHY? Why here, why now, and why a student production performed by our first generation of born-frees?

First enacted in Johannesburg’s Bantu Men’s Social Centre in 1958 and now, at Wits University’s Downstairs Theatre in 2014 by young theatre scholars; the hub of Braamfontein reflects the content of thematic debates around racial consciousness and social power in a modern setting. Braamfontein is a contemporary space of youthful integration where rainbow-generation young adults meet and debate contemporary post-Apartheid South African politics. No Good Friday, performed by a student cohort, paralleled these similar social activities.

The narrative follows the character, Willie’s journey, played by Nolo Mmeti, through disillusionment of the value of black intellect and a BA degree, in the traumatic face of the ethical principles against freedom and wasted life. The irony is that without the opened consciousness from tertiary education, Willie may not have found conscience in such a hard place. Thematically, the tensions of Apartheid’s racial binaries and oppressive systems are secondarily present through the character’s testimonies of their working relationship with the white boss. Inside the play, the conflicts of power and oppression exist through mobster control within the racial demographic of late 1950’s Sophiatown. The resistance of newcomer, Tobias, against the mob’s established means of control results in his violent murder and sets Willie along an unravelling path of distressed relationships, friendships, religion and himself.

Conservative but charming, Andrea Van Der Kuil’s set design used found materials- corrugated iron, timber, old clothes and furniture –  to capture the socio-environmental impact of an economically disempowered group. A demure aesthetic palette warmed the eye with maroons, browns and creams, accentuated by the occasional burst of blue. An enchanting, if unprogressively, vision! The costume design reached to recreate the iconic street fashion of 1950’s Sophiatown, but too many two toned shoes and pin striped suits looked gimmicky in this day and age. However, emphasising the jazz association of the era linked Ravengai’s No Good Friday with its 1958 counterpart (performed largely by musicians), and its black consciousness American equivalent.
Andrea Van Der Kuil's set

A student production, those who could act shone from their two toned shoes, embodying the jazz imbibed vigour of then Sophiatown through to rhythmical feet. Unfortunate technical noise and crude audio transitions made the challenge for those reaching for presence and technical proficiency that much harder. Bradley Cebekhulu, performing Tobias, sensitively explored his social and intellectual status as an outsider from rural South Africa, a newcomer to Sophiatown. His submissive body language, yet assuring voice articulated the tension between Willie and himself. His murder at the hands of the mob was touching, as a character he was endeared to the audience, and the alluring-repugnant energy of mobsters (Themba Twala and Malebogo Mqoboli) was compelling. Tobias introduced themes of assimilation, and failure to succumb to the corrupt powers that be (to some, known as success).

Malebogo Mqoboli, who played mobster Harry, contrasts the puppet of power who violently murders Tobias with current states of criminality and social corruptions against humanity. His reflection casts a lens on the devaluation of life experienced in South Africa, as well as the interactive, social violations of freedom enacted in our post-Apartheid, democratic state.

First and foremost we still have a high rate of crime, in particular in most South African townships. There are gangsters (a character like Shark) in the townships who take people's belongings and kill innocent souls every weekend and every month end. The community does not want to get involved and does not want to inform the police, it is better to keep quite. Black women are heavily abused and raped by their male counter-part. Children are being kidnapped.

Regarding Ravengai’s choice of text, Fugard’s text forms part of the core of a South African canon of literature, that clearly still holds social relevance. Issues of assimilation as experienced by Tobias are universal, and no less so for post-Apartheid experience of youth moving from rural and country settings, into a big metropolitan city. Like Tobias, one meets a new language that needs be learnt in order to survive. This, as a first generation post-apartheid young adult, I translate to language of oppression. As millennials, raised by social media and virtual imaging, I identify languages of materialism, consumption and narcissism as the hidden structures that control and oppress our collective existence. In this regard, I think No Good Friday, as an allegorical text (as well as historic) in the present, contains curious echoes.

As much as I admire Fugard, the prioritisation of a male point of view concerning social, political and economic ideas reflects the wrong side of history. And unfortunately, in the case of No Good Friday, it is wholly prioritised. In a play that thematically centres power and oppression, the very form and content reaffirm the oppression of women. The picture of gender relations painted by the text can only be critiqued in its stereotypical range of controlling or submissive husbands (Willie or Watson), and their domesticated women whose only objectives are marriage. Indeed, there is an overwhelming ratio of more than three males for every female, and only one of which (female) has any kind of substance/objective (marriage). Kelly Eksteen, the actress playing Rebecca said,

As a contemporary female actress I struggled a lot with No Good Friday. See, as much as the play promotes a universal human message I feel that as performers that sometimes gets lost on us. Rebecca is a 1950's woman, her job and ambition in life is to be a woman to her man and as a modern woman I know otherwise, also I come from a long line of strong ambitious women.

Regarding Ravengai’s choice to direct No Good Friday at an academic institute in 2014, which caters for both males and females; the requirements of the text seriously misrepresent the present social and intellectual currency we work with. It is my hope but not my knowledge, that therein lies a conscious statement, as in his works as a writer Trauma Centre (2001) and On the Brink (2000), Ravengai scripts gender-integrated texts.

No Good Friday’s run at the Wits Downstairs Theatre has reached its end, but no doubt more will be coming from director Samuel Ravengai and his cast of thirteen. 
The director, Samuel Ravengai, (left) with John Kani (right) having a post-performance discussion with cast on the closing night.