Review: Sibuyiselo Dywili electrifying performance as Can Themba in Siphiwo Mahala’s House of Truth, directed by Siphenathi Siqwayi

House of Truth by Dr Siphiwo Mahala on the Baxter – September 14-16, 6.30pm, 2022

Performer: Sibuyiselo Dywili
Director: Siphenathi Siqwayi
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This production of Dr Siphiwo Mahala’s play, House of Truth, was recently on at Theatre Arts in Observatory, Cape Town for a short run and is on in the Baxter Masambe Theatre, until September 16, at 6.30pm. It is an extremely short run and this is a quickie review to alert readers to please go and see this outstanding production.  The play is based on the political and personal challenges that South African writer, Can Themba dealt with as he witnessed the bulldozing of Sophiatown, where he lived. The play is set in his single room bachelor flat, at 111 Ray Street in Sophiatown of the 1950s. Sibuyiselo Dywili activates the stage with an electrifying performance as Can Themba who was eccentric, maverick,non-conformist, principled, passionate, outspoken, impeccably stylish and urbane- and a lot more. There was one Can Themba and his legend endures. He was a seeker of the ‘truth’ and his home was ‘The House of Truth’- a place for truth seekers to congregate – in a safe space- where discourse and dialogue – was uncensored and where people were free to express themselves; think, argue, debate.

The play hinges around Can Themba’s relentless attempts to get the Apartheid education authorities, to accept his English degree from The University of Fort Hare so that he could teach. It is sickening to watch as he waits for his degree to be certified as he checks his post box, off-stage. One piece of paper and there was nothing he could do but wait and hope. The narrative plays out as Can Themba, the raconteur, regales us with his zeal for life and to his famous axiom, “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.” He relished his booze and living life to its fullest. Themba died in 1967 (aged 43), in Swaziland. Sophiatown is the milieu which is seminal to his identity as a writer and habitué and his extraordinary contribution to the cultural life of the Sophiatown era as associate director at Drum Magazine. He also contributed to for Drum’s sister newspaper, the Golden City Post. Both newspapers vividly imaged the lives of Black people, living under the Apartheid regime. Can Themba with his eye for ‘ordinary’ people and their stories, captured the attention of readers in his home country and abroad. He was brave, courageous and uncompromising; never afraid to write about the truth. He writing was a voice for those who had been muzzled or who were not able to speak out.

The staging (design, lighting, set, costumes) is a wow. Siphenathi Siqwayi in the director’s seat, moves Can Themba (Sibuyiselo Dywili) around the stage, activating the space. He goes off stage and interacts with the audience, engaging directly and at one point, inviting participation. I won’t plot spoil. This could have been a static monologue of solo performance but in the hands of this team, the production grooves – like a jazz event in Sophiatown.

I found the production a tad long, but it is a stunning production. The production team told me that 2024 will mark Can Themba’s centenary. I hope that this production will be staged again -in 2024. The team told me that the play premiered at the National Arts Festival in 2016 and was staged in Johannesburg in 2017 (sold out runs). As far as I can ascertain, there have not been other productions and that is a shame. Sibuyiselo Dywili explained: “We are working as a creative team of four. Thabang J Baleni is producing; Siphenathi Siqwayi is directing, Lindokuhle Melaphi is stage managing; I am acting.” Together they scraped the funds together, to mount this production. He added: “Thabang proposed the play to me last year. He wanted a Can Themba story and wanted me to act in it. Luckily, I have read the play. So we teamed up and drafted proposals to Siphiwo [Mahala]. We managed to convince him to granting us the rights to his play. Then from there, we gathered crew, and pitched to Caroline [Calburn at Theatre Arts] to have it there. She agreed and wanted to help more. We pitched to Nwabisa Plaatjie of the Baxter [Masambe], she liked it and she wanted to help even more. That’s basically how it began -till this far.”

Anguish as the House of Truth is erased: Sibuyiselo Dywili in House of Truth by Dr Siphiwo Mahala, 2022 production, Cape Town.

✳Featured image – Sibuyiselo Dywili in House of Truth by Dr Siphiwo Mahala, 2022 production, Cape Town.