Review: Mulato Sujo? -conceived and directed by Lorin Sookool, featuring Sumalgy Nuro,at Theatre Arts, Cape Town, October/November 2020

Mulato Sujo? premiered in Cape Town at Theatre Arts and wrapped up last night, November 1, 2020. In an interview with TheCapeRobyn, director Lorin Sookool explained that this season is a ‘seed’ –ignited by research that she undertook in Mozambique. Mulato “describes” a person of mixed race ancestry.” Sujo evokes something negative and be may be translated as “dirty”. If you use the word, mulato in Mozambique, that is acceptable but when you tag on sujo that takes on ugly resonances. Link to the interview with Sookool, follows below. This solo work features Sumalgy Nuro, who is from Mozambique and is currently completing his studies in African Music at UCT, Cape Town.

In this manifestation of Mulato Sujo? at Theatre Arts, we are led in single file, by Sookool, with flashlight in hand. She motions us to our places, in a circle of chairs, flanking a circle of white, tacked onto the floor. Sumalgy Nuro is crouched on a chair. He combs through his dreadlocks with a mbira. Hair is an evocative image in Africa. There is recurring dissent in this country over school kids being informed to ‘tame’ their locks and ostensibly follow school rules but we all know it has nothing to do with etiquette and everything to do with ‘race’ and racism. This is the immediate ping for me as I watch this figure on a chair, raking through his dreadlocks, grooming himself.

Mulato Sujo? is non-verbal dance theatre, with no fixed narrative or script. Much is open to interpretation. Mooting my thoughts to Sookool, in a WhatsApp, after the show, she answers that yes, his hair “reflects his individuality and wanting to be free – even though deadlocks most often are judged…” Sookool: “The mbira is an extension of Suma and his relationship with it changes throughout the piece – as you go through different life moments etc These sections all come from workshopped discussions. I wanted to use the body, movement language and sound to describe this process of embracing rejecting or even playing with ideas and definitions of identity.”

Eventually Nuro detaches from the mbira and attaches it to a wire above him, hanging from the ceiling. We see him breaking out of the confines of the chair, his box. He prowls the space, exploring and immersing himself in chalk dust which images a map of Mozambique. As he rolls in the matter of the map, the boundaries of the image become smudged. Colour is transferred to his body and to the white space of the circle. Chalk dust particles float into the air. The fixed construct of figure in arena is disrupted by movement, colour, music and a resonant soundscape.  Sumalgy Nuro loops sound into the back track- with his feet. Sookool: “The music is made by live percussion, voice, sounds, and input into his looping device. The layers and layering was symbolic for us.”

The figure is searching and seeking. He veers between careful picking through his dreadlocks to anguished grunts and cries as he rolls around and is wrapped by the map. His body becomes stamped with the stuff – the particles of chalk.  He is relentless in his immersion in the map/body of Mozambique. At times, I think, he is going to leap out his circle and jump into our space. I physically recoil as the dust scatters and then I lean in; drawn into and by his energy; the thumping and beating of the sounds. Although physically distanced from each other by the placement of chairs – in single file – and a metre or so from the space – there is a sense of being connected – pulled into this ring of movement and voice.

This a multi layered and nuanced work which even in its first live performance outing is vividly conveyed through images – hair, map – which are loaded signifiers of identity. Together with movement and sound/music scape – Mulato Sujo? – materialises as a rousing piece of theatre. In her directorial debut, Sookool conjures up a compelling narrative in non-verbal performance, which goes beyond ‘dance’ and ‘choreography’. She doesn’t present a neat response to the question posed in the title- Mulato Sujo?. Sumalgy’s body is like a canvas – and the colours from Mozambique become smudged on his skin. But that doesn’t mean that he is ‘dirty’. His body has become transformed by his physical immersion in the map of his country.

Once again, sitting in Theatre Arts, during the pandemic, for me there is sense of inhabiting a sacred space. As we gather around, in the dark; silent masked figures, we are part of Mulato Sujo? We are sitting in the site. We are on-site. Afterwards, we sit, stunned; not moving for a few minutes; processing the fact that we have been part of a dreamlike moment of transcendence in these challenging days. Bravo to Lorin Sookool and creative team for a finely tuned performance which has turned the venue into a magical circle of possibility. It is like gathering around a fire, communing in the space and being connected to the creatives who have put this together in the pandemic – a time when live performance requires effort, planning and care. This comes across profoundly in Mulato Sujo? – the layers of narrative, image; weaving of personal/political/cultural identities; the intricate and considered choreography/movement, design and placing of audience in relation to the performance site. There is the body in the space -movement – measured, jerky, and our bodies rooted in our chairs– around him. He pulls and tugs at his hair and that makes me aware of my hair and hair in general and it reverberates in terms of the conversations around hair in this country. I realise that in lockdown, many conversations have been mute put on pause or have become muffled. We are wearing masks and we cannot hear each other- or choose not to.

The mask can be a nifty way of feigning disconnection; posturing ignorance: “Oh, sorry, I missed that – it was lockdown. I stopped following the news and events. Oh, I missed that… ” Ruptures remain ruptures. Identity is an ongoing discourse. Live performance is vital in jolting out of the lockdown fugue. Unlike the digital stage, you cannot look away, go and make tea or fast-forward. You are there. You look up and see the chalk dust floating into the air and the map is a blur but the artist on the stage has undergone a metamorphosis in front of you – physically and emotionally.

The season at Theatre Arts is over. It was a three nighter during lockdown. Hopefully, Mulato Sujo? will be staged again, as solo performance or in another incarnation.

❇ Image credit: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, November 1, 2020, at Theatre Arts, Cape Town.