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Theatre in Review: Ndebele Funeral (Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative/59E59)

Yusef Miller, Zoey Martinson, and Jonathan David Martin. Photo. Hunter Canning

In drama, as in poetry, I'm all in favor of compression; the more economically one can express one's ideas, the better. But one can go too far, which is the problem afflicting Ndebele Funeral. In writing a classic state-of-the-nation play, Zoey Martinson tries to lay bare the many disappointments afflicting South Africa in the post-apartheid era -- in 80 minutes, complete with interludes of song and dance. It's a tall order and it results in a drama that is sometimes deeply affecting but oftentimes forced and artificial.

The action unfolds in a shack in Soweto Township inhabited by Daweti, once a young woman of promise -- she studied law -- and now a recluse suffering from AIDS. Having been given building materials as part of a government housing program for the poor, she has instead constructed a coffin in which she likes to sleep. She figures it will become her full-time home soon enough. (She has given up on any kind of medical treatment, for reasons that are never really explained.) Based on the extensive collection of beer cans and bottles tucked away, it would appear that she is planning on drinking herself into a stupor until the end finally comes.

Daweti's privacy is invaded by two men: Thabo, her old college friend, who is determined to coax her back to life, and Jan, an African National Congress functionary who is checking up on Daweti's use of government construction supplies. He has good reason to be snooping around. As Thabo notes, "People are staying in the shacks and renting out their government home to make money off of it. And the people who are in charge of assigning the homes have started taking bribes from families who want to move in. So at the end of the day it isn't free anyway, because you have to pay someone to get into them, but they are nice homes."

Jan is horrified to learn that Daweti has used government timber to make her coffin, and this leads to a confrontation that quickly spins out of control. Before that, however, Daweti and Thabo spend much of the play's brief running time hashing out the failed promise of life under the ANC. "This is the thing about apartheid," Thabo says. "It used to be so easy...or focused, you know. You knew who your enemy was. My dad used to blame the white baas [boss] man, right that was tangible and specific. He smiled and said, 'Yes, baas.' Now I smile with the whites and say, 'Yes, baas.'" Daweti dismisses the government as "a bunch of men and women in suits talking a bunch of shit they know nothing about. Trying to fix problems they have never had in their wealthy lives. Cause in the end of the day they go home to their nice homes, with their kids in private schools, with their health insurance and they are a million miles away from this place. A shack they know nothing about and poverty they have never felt." Jan has a powerful monologue describing his dreary job, which forces him to wander through hostile shantytowns, leaving him yearning for the stimulation of his days as a philosophy student at university.

Passages such as these are gripping but the drama that has been constructed to hold them is as rickety as Daweti's shack. It goes without saying that Daweti, who is colored; Thabo, who is black and a committed Christian; and Jan, who is white, are meant to represent a cross-section of South African society; they are united only in their pain and frustration, however. Daweti's illness has made her give up on life; Thabo's dream of being a writer has never materialized; Jan is stuck in a dead-end job that forces him to face the government's failures. At the same time, the script leaves hanging many nagging questions. Were Thabo and Daweti, who have so little in common, really ever best friends? How did Daweti, a promising law student, slide into poverty and illness? Was it really necessary to introduce a loaded gun in order to further juice up the already melodramatic climax?

The script states that the sequences of movement and song that interrupt the action are examples of "a specific type of oral storytelling in South Africa called township theatre," but they feel intrusive in an otherwise conventional three-person drama, and they break up what little tension has managed to accumulate. An especially lengthy sequence of this type, detailing the story of a girl banished from her township, seems like a complete distraction from the drama. (It may or may not refer to Daweti; I was never sure.) What little we do know of the characters comes from monologues that are awkwardly inserted into the action. Even more problematic is Awoye Timpo's direction, which is so intense and over-emotive that it quickly becomes exhausting, especially in the narrow confines of 59E59's Theater C. Ironically, the louder the actors shout, the harder they are to understand.

Nevertheless, Martinson's performance as Daweti is intermittently harrowing, especially when, felled by her illness, she collapses to the floor, gasping for breath. She is especially powerful when, late in the action, she lays bare the despair that has led her to this desolate place. As Thabo, Yusef Miller is a powerful presence with a megawatt smile, but he needs to dial down the energy level a few thousand percent. Similarly, Jonathan David Martin's performance as Jan suffers from the prevailing declamatory style. All three performances become wearing long before the play is over.

Jason Sherwood's junk-riddled set design, with a shabby wall made of scraps of wood covered with newspaper, is an evocative piece of work. The other design contributions, including Lara de Bruijn's costumes, Justin W. King's lighting, and John Emmett O'Brien's sound, are all okay.

There is some power here, and it is interesting to see American theatre artists take on material that is so far from their doors. But Ndebele Funeral is at best a patchy thing further compromised by overacting. One leaves the theatre fatigued, rather than moved.--David Barbour


(16 September 2014)

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