Review: Ziyana- Nwabisa Plaatjie’s exquisitely manifested musical drama- an alchemy of storytelling, memory, blessings

What: Ziyani- musical drama
Where and when: Theatre Arts, Cape Town- March 7- 12, 2023

Written by: Nwabisa Plaatjie with extracts by Sindiwe Magona (‘you are perfect’), Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa (‘the grandmother’s advice’), Ukhona Ntsaluba Mlandu (‘you are here’), Patricia Khumalo (you are enough)

Music: Zimbini Makwetu  

Awethu Hleli – Diana
Noluthando Mili- the grandmother
Tankiso Mamabolo – the mother
Thandeka Mfinyongo – Noma – the witness and keeper of the stories

Set design and costumes: Yonela Makoba and Xola Makoba
Stage manager: Zimasa Dyani

Ziyana is at Theatre Arts, Cape Town – until Sunday -March 12, 2023. Do NOT miss this musical drama. I watched last night, March 8, International Women’s Day.  I am in awe of the alchemy of theatre, music. The script of this musical drama has been exquisitely written by Nwabisa Plaatjie (and includes extracts by seminal writers such as Sindiwe Magona). The music has been composed and arranged by Zimbini Makwetu. Plaatjie muses: “Ziyana is a dream space for young black professionals written as a coming of age story in a family of storytellers.” The title: “Ziyana refers to blessings pouring down or the recognition of how blessed you are”, says Plaatjie [isiXhosa to English]. Even without this translation, this is abundantly evidenced or perhaps I should say manifested, in this joyous piece of theatre, which although, cleaved by streaks of pain and grief, is ultimately a celebration of the transcendent power of stories and storytelling – for the tellers and the listeners. It is not only crucial for the storytellers to tell their stories but for us, the audience, to listen- to the before – “before fear”, before life happens and then what happens next; choices, choosing pathways which are a fit; not being afraid to correct one’s mistakes and wrong turns.   

Ziyana is balm, a beautiful theatre experience which entertains and yet within the gratitude and celebration, it is intricately layered with so much stuff- being a Black artist- striving for success- striving to write one’s own story – within the obstacles – surviving the taxi ride from the township to the suburbs. Ziyana is what Plaatjie has termed as “theatre of resistance and mythology”.  It is a production laced and threaded with a lot. A lot of that is uncomfortable but the way, it is threaded together, well, it says – come into this space – and hear our stories – and be inspired by our hope, our gratitude, blessings.

The season is short and I want to get this up so I will follow up with more about this astounding achievement – a musical drama – which I reckon is in a category of its own. It sets the bar for musical theatre in another sphere. I urge producers to take note of the sensational writer-musical creative team of Nwabisa Plaatjie and Zimbini Makwetu. Everything from the design, lighting and costumes (Yonela Makoba and Xola Makoba) is impeccably and exquisitely placed. For instance, there are electric fairly lights on a passage way – placed deliberately – a few are on their side. The passage way is book-ended by two stages -a home/haven with precious and loved things) and on the other side is a space where the Noma – the witness and keeper of the stories – is shrouded by a quilt, hanging behind her. With traditional Intsomi (oral story/folk telling), the audience sits in the round,. In this production, it is performed it in traverse and the audience sits on the sides, flanking the storytelling passageway. It is immersed in the story. For me the passage way is like a platform – a pathway – emblematic of the journey of the young woman, Diana, who must go on her journey and create her own stories. The passage way, pinged for me in relation to a ramp, such as those one sees in fashion shows, with figures elevated, presenting beautiful and interesting clothes. In the play, there is reference to the fact that in isiXhosa culture, one must not plead poverty. One must dress well and be proud. In Ziyana, tremendous care has gone into the costumes and set (the home stage is so beautiful- lace doiley, clock, treasured furniture and objects, family heirlooms) and dressing of the protagonists.

This collaborative production has its genesis in the ASSITEJ African Play Writing competition [2019]. Plaatjie was a finalist and that point it was “fragments”. With funding from IETM (The international Network for Performing Arts) and its programme, Local Journeys for Change, last year [2022], the piece was performed, one night only at the ICA [Institute for Creative Arts] at UCT. That iteration went into an intensive two week rehearsal period, now, (yes that is not a typo, two weeks to create a production of excellence) and here it is, with one cast change, Ziyana, at Theatre Arts in Cape Town, March 2023.

For this iteration, Ziyana has been bundled with Plaatjie’s play When We Awake, which was on recently in the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio and is part of Plaatjie’s current project, An Artist is Made []. That project speaks to the process of making art, collaboration, sharing of skills and in particular the attention required to facilitate the making of art for young Black creatives. This goes back to Plaatjie’s initial start-up funding with IETM and remains core to Ziyana. It was not simply about creating and staging a work but the attention to the practical and holistic – ensuring that the performers had safe accommodation during rehearsals, during the actual show times, that they had access to child care (Plaatjie is the mother of a young child) and that they had access to other essentials like transport. All of that has been on the brew, in tandem with Ziyana and threads of this are embedded in the text. But and here is where I rave further- Ziyana could have easily been an ‘interesting’ piece, speaking to process. Plaatjie has stitched together fragments, ideas, text from people she admires, her own stories, stories from the cast. It could have been patchwork which was ‘interesting’ but not necessarily a stand-alone pace of theatre of art. With a production of this excellence, I would have expected dramaturgy and a massive team of sound designers etc. No, Plaatjie is her own dramaturge. The performers and creative team has pulled together and created a stunning piece of theatre which on its own- never mind the meta-text of process and creation- is exceptional.  

It is very, very difficult to create musical theatre. It is tough to marry story, words, voice. This cast sings magnificently, a capella. Tankiso Mamabolo and Zimbini Makwetu have both been nominated for the 58th Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards (to be announced March 26, 2023) and I reckon that this entire company should be nominated for the FDC, as an ensemble in musical or revue. They segue seamlessly between sung story and spoken word (wow dialogue – with every word – chewed on and rolled in the mouth) -breathtaking.  I have not even gone into the way they move from home (the one little stage/nest- almost like a museum, diorama – an archive of stories and memory), along the pathway, passage of life. There is humour: We should all eat pizza once a week and have someone to cook for us, on occasion. Love that. Yes! It is playful on that pathway, ramp.

I hope that Ziyana will be staged again. It would be great in the Baxter’s Flipside –a space- which facilities theatre in the round and would be a terrific ground for the pathway. I would love to see that pathway, being extended into a ramp- raised above the ground – to hoist the performers up – so we can look up- at them – and listen and watch and learn. That would take funding. Ziyana is an exceptional musical drama, with a brilliant script, nuanced performance, knockout voice and musical score. It is musical theatre of innovation and vision.

Table-ling stories: Nwabisa Plaatjie’s musical drama, Ziyana, staged at Theatre Arts, Cape Town, March 2023. Pic supplied.

✳ Images- supplied.