Review: Molupi Lepedi’s Back to Ashes is an intricately polished piece of theatre – coiled around grief swathed in humour, voice (song) and dance

Back to Ashes- on the Baxter as part of The Zabalaza Finest of The Fest- until September 17, 2022

Writer/director: Molupi Lepedi
Ensemble cast: Includes – Mthobisi Mphandle, Zanokhanyo Salman, Snalo Ndzunga, Noluvuyo Qhogi, Luyanda Nodilinga, Bulelani Mananga, Kabelo Lebenya, Fefekazi, Mfundisi, Siyabonga Jim, Nizole Mandumbu and Zintle Zwelibi

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Back to Ashes is heartbreaking theatre, coiled around grief but swathed in humour, voice (song) and dance which provides release. Outstanding script, staging (lighting, design, costumes), performances (terrific a cappella/choral work and dance by the ensemble cast). It is on until Saturday- September 17, 2022 – at the Baxter as part of The Zabalaza Finest of The Fest. It is a must-see. It blew me away on many levels. 

The writer and director is Molupi Lepedi- Magnet Theatre Graduate and winner of the 2019 Best Supporting Actor Award.   The play was formerly titled, Mothers Son Devour. The narrative wraps and loops around itself. Consummate direction by Lepedi, with dazzling use of physical theatre, voice, props (for example, a velvet cushion for a ring during a marriage proposal).

Okay, so here we is a plot spoiler alert, although the original title and the media release does reveal that this is not a comfortable play. There is a young woman, the pride of her clan, family, wider society who goes from her village, to Cape Town to further her dreams and her education. Much has been invested in her –in furthering her dreams- the hope that she embodies for all- back home. And then an evil man rips it all away. Back to Ashes is theatre of rage. It plumbs the depths of despair of around us (violence, rape, murder). The play is a howl: An appeal -to put an end to the senseless loss of lives through violence and for men to respect women – to respect the mothers – who birthed them. It sounds bleak and yeah, it’s not a nice story. But it’s our story. Within the despair and rage is the acknowledgment that the sun will rise. It will be evening. There will be new beginnings- births, unions, successes. There will be moments when we can laugh and should laugh (as we do in this play- lots of funny lines – terrific writing). We must celebrate new lives and look to a future, without ashes.  

Grief, anger, loss: It is not easy to transmute this into a play on the stage and somehow make art out of life, by harnessing the pain but at the same time framing it in a way that we as the audience, do not look away. Lepedi has used the theatrical space as a container to tell his story. Lapedi grapples with a lot – the pandemic of violence-the lack of accountability- and he arranges movement and sound so that we can contemplate, process, engage; laugh at times. Rage, outrage, indignation is contained (visually and emotionally), within the unfurling narratives.

The ensemble is brilliant- every person on that stage is a stand-out. They group in formations on two plinths on stage and then individuals are foregrounded. The interplay between the groups is impeccably choreographed. It’s not just the choreography (Buhle Stefane and Olwethu Qavile) but also the way the bodies/grouping shift. Most of the dialogue is in isiXhosa and English surtitles are beamed onto a screen. The surtitles are excellent. One can see that care has gone into getting the translations to synch with the dialogue. Back to Ashes is an intricately polished piece of theatre which could – and should – be staged in cities abroad – Paris, London, New York. The combination of voice (a capella), physical movement and dance, imbues Back to Ashes with an operatic vibe.  And there is Molupi’s script – which is poetic, elegiac and has shots of laughter. Back to Ashes is an exceptional piece of theatre.

✳ Featured image – Back to Ashes. Supplied.