Theatre review: Cwaka, Conceived and directed by Qondiswa James and co-written by the artistic team, premieres at Theatre Arts, Cape Town, October 2020

What: Cwaka
When: Thursday October 22 to to Sunday October, 25, 2020 Time: 7.30pm on Oct 22, 23, 24; 3pm Oct 15
Where: Methodist Church Hall, Corner Milton Road and Wesley Street , Observatory, 7925 Tickets: R100. Seating is unreserved Booking info:  082 752 1376 Bookings: No cash sales available at the door Arrival time: 15 mins before–Covid protocols – temp checks etc Entry to theatre: Five minutes before start Dress alert: Shoes left at door – wear socks  

Cwaka may be translated from isiXhosa into English as “silence/stillness”.Conceived and directed by Qondiswa James and co-written by the artistic team, it premiered tonight (October 22, 2020) at Theatre Arts, Cape Town, as part of its Creating Theatre in the Age of Corona season, funded by a bequest by the late Gordon Hirschowitz.

Cwaka wraps up on Sunday (October 25, 2020) –a very short season. The synopsis reads as follows: “Two sisters, twins in their late 20s, have grown up estranged from each other. When their birthmother goes missing, they begin to share dreams and must rescue their mother from a fear demon in the ancestral realm together.” It is a piece which hinges around vivid imagery: home, dreams, nightmares, birth, death; ties; chords that connect and disconnect us. Interlocking narratives play out through intense physical performance, voice, choral verse and beautiful shadow puppetry. The audience is seated on the periphery of the sisters’ universe. The one sister speaks mainly in isiXhosa. The other sister speaks mainly in English. She tells us that she doesn’t sleep anymore. They are waiting and waiting (for ubers, taxis, phone calls, information), seeking, dreaming; searching.

It is an intricately considered piece with the signature exquisite writing by Qondiswa James. I was holding on to phrases and fragments and absorbing the isiXhosa I could not ‘understand’. The song, music and images transported me beyond language. It is a piece which is abstracted and dreamlike. I need to get this review out for my website newsletter (tomorrow -Friday) and tell you not to miss this theatre experience, so forgive the quickie review. 

One talks about magical realism. I would suggest that sitting in the round at Theatre Arts, as part of the unfolding narrative of Cwaka and it is something akin to magical un-realism. Here we are during the pandemic – the un-reality of the so-called ‘new normal’ and we become immersed in the un-real/real journey of these two sisters. We enter the darkened space, led in one by one, by Theatre Arts director, Caroline Calburn. The stage design is on an epic scale- filling the entire space. The installation reminds me of festivals where there are stages with performances on the go, with screens, filled with footage.  It is an extraordinary construction- made from found objects and cheap materials- hessian – crates etc.

Masked puppeteers pin stirring scenes, using shadow puppetry. It is whimsical, playful and heart breaking. The lighting design by Themba Stewart is like another character – revealing and concealing these two women; separated and tethered at the same time. They have clearly led very different lives with vastly different opportunities. Terrific characters – conjured up byTankiso Mamabolo and Namisa Mdlalose.

I was overcome by this emotionally charged theatre experience which is emblematic for me of this liminal un-realism that we are living through at the moment- a blurry shadow world of silence – a jarring and juddering stillness. The usual anxieties that we face regarding family and relationship become amplified by the times that we are embedded in and this comes across for me, in this piece. It is about two sisters, seeking and searching through silence and uncertainty but there are moments of whimsy, humour and joy.

Entering Theatre Arts, no shoes (shoes left at door because of Covid protocols), masks on; there is a sense of entering a sacred place; a space of reverence. It is like a temple of theatre. Quiet please. Listen and watch. Be transported by the music, voice, lyrical shadow stories on the screens.

Cwaka production credits Conceived and directed by Qondiswa James and co-written by the artistic team Cwaka features Tankiso Mamabolo and Namisa Mdlalose Sound design by Gugulethu Dumaand Music performed by Sibahle Sky Dladla. Set design and lighting is by Themba Stewart.

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Image credit: Tankiso Mamabolo, Sibahle Sky Dladla and Namisa Mdlalose in CWAKA.  Photo by Jesse Kramer.