The beautiful Djeli opened last night. February 20, 2024, at Theatre Arts in Cape Town, as part of its Theatre in the Dark season. Djeli is on tonight, Wednesday February 21, Thursday February 22 and Friday February 23 at 8.30pm. That’s it – for now- so this is quickie review.

Djeli is a new play which has been lovingly and intricately crafted. The cast is a knockout. The performers are Peggy Tunyiswa, Mthuthuzeli Zimba and Busi Maphumulo and they all use their voices as a potent medium of expression. At the core of this piece is visceral storytelling and to tell the story; words, voice, body are all vital. The physical theatre and language dovetails with voice.  In tandem with the powerful visual narrative, one is immersed in the oral narrative of Katlego Chale’s brilliant script which evokes multiple landscapes- physical, emotional, cultural, familiar, geographical, personal, communal, belonging, loss – and a lot more. It is a story rooted in Africa. It is a universal story of young people spurred to excavate the ruptures of their histories, attempting to repair the damage and ruptures by those before them. Director, Mmatumisang Motsisi, with technical direction by Tiffani Dlamini, brings a lyricism to this story which is threaded with images of displacement, longing for lineage, heritage, home and whole-ness.

The team told me that Djeli is a Mandinka word which may be translated as “storyteller” and “blood”. They added that without djelis, African oral traditions would be non-existent …a clear connection to a Bambara proverb that says djelis are the lifeblood of their nations.”

Djeli is magical storytelling, framed by the warm glow of paraffin lamps and the sands of time, shape shifting physically and metaphorically. The story starts with violation, dispossession and dislodgment and ends with being on the road, in search of restoration, reunification and a return home. We must tell the stories and keep memories alive. With erasure, we have no hope of redemption – for families and cultures to be whole again.

As part of #TheatreInTheDark at Theatre Arts, in this production, lighting is used which is not dependent on being plugged into the electricity grid. The paraffin lamps work beautifully as a lighting source – conjuring up fire and storytelling around fires. The warmth of the lamps is a foil to the uncomfortable images that we see. The warmth is a comfort and balm. We need that. In the dark, we are focussed on the voice, the story. We are drawn in to the narrative. We must listen carefully. Storytelling theatre is not an easy genre. It can be a mess with a lot of noise and fury, signifying the unfathomable. Katlego Chale’s script is tight and polished – every word resonates. One can hear each word. It often takes new works to brew. Djali is fully formed. It casts a trance, around us; the audience. I felt like I was in a dream, fireside in a safe space. There is so much damage and despair around us and ultimately, repair is what we need. I would love to see this play again so I can listen – and experience – this story again.

Bookings at or at venue. Direct booking link:

Ovation: Djeli at Theatre Arts, Cape Town, Theatre in the Dark, February 20, 2024. Pic: Robyn Cohen/TheCapeRobyn.

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✳Featured image: Djeli at Theatre Arts, Cape Town, Theatre in the Dark, February 20, 2024. Pic: Robyn Cohen/TheCapeRobyn.