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Mbothwe’s training platform for emerging black actors

Mar 2023 19

In search of answers and absolution, Mandla Mbothwe’s work engages with the frenzied and stubborn traumas of black people in SA today.

In search of answers and absolution, Mandla Mbothwe’s work engages with the frenzied and stubborn traumas of black people in SA today.


The work of acclaimed playwright and researcher Mandla Mbothwe is rooted in cosmology and African storytelling traditions.

He is the artistic director of the Magnet Theatre in Cape Town, an enviable training platform mainly for emerging black actors.

Mbothwe’s work engages with the frenzied and stubborn traumas of black people in South Africa today. In search of answers and absolution, his theatre curates heightened sermons, prayers, songs, dances, the throwing of bones and herbs.

Mbothwe is pleading with the ancestral bones to respond to the anxieties and material oppression of the living. Ancestral bones must help Frantz Fanon’s wretched of the earth survive life’s daunting storms.

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His latest play, iKrele leChiza … The Sermon, responds to the destruction of indigenous African spiritual beliefs and knowledge systems.

Premiered last year, iKrele is an epic festival of deep meditation towards healing the wounds of colonial conquest and the excesses of Christian missionary indoctrination.

It is part of a six-year research project called Reimagining Tragedy from Africa and the Global South, which Mbothwe leads with speech and drama professor Mark Fleishman.

The play features committed artists from The Magnet Youth Company at its premises in Observatory.

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To witness the play is mind-blowing. It is like walking into an ancestral shrine during a long-awaited ritual ceremony.

The stage resembles an African rondavel filled with the magic of traditional Xhosa songs, chants, dances and admonishing prayers in a cyclical festival full of mystique and engrossing ritualistic rhetoric.

The story is told through siblings.

 Magnet Theatre administrator Jenny Hewlett explains 

A brother and sister named Luphawo and Mesuli find themselves navigating a child-headed home, a current reality for many South African children

“Their parents are stuck in respective liminal spaces between life and death.

“Their mother [played by Babalwa Makwetu] is in an ancestral orientation room because she refused death until her body could no longer go on, and their father [Lulamile Nikani] is in a spiritual exile.”

The agonising cries of a woman who refuses to join the ancestors but demands that her exiled husband return home linger longer in the mind.

The harrowing tears of an almost maddened mother in a trance and spitting venom left me with excruciating pain and endless questions about the seeming permanence of black and poor people’s suffering in the world.

Mbothwe says: 

Black lives hang by a spider’s [thread] and are under attack. Death is the only constant for the living. A death needs to be accepted for the new to be born. It’s like imvumakufa in Christianity. All the rights of passage are about the imperative of a symbolic death. My search is for rituals that are critical in helping us move forward. This play is about the hope for such a possibility. In the 1980s, when I joined the arts, it was all about political conscientising. That struggle continues. A luta continua!

iKrele offers varied dialectical conversations that move far beyond the narrow binaries of good and evil, power and powerlessness, African spirituality and Christianity, men and women.

“Coloniality is in our bone marrow and we cannot simply get rid of it,” Mbothwe admits.

Africans must go all out in search of the foundation stones in the wild deserts of their forlorn dreams.

Mbothwe explains: “What we lost was not just our land; our collective wisdom was brutally demonised so much that, to this day, we are living with the cruel curse of having lost our herbs.

My work wants to centre African herbs. We must openly talk about them and remember their names, because these herbs were once dear to our ancestors; we must reclaim them. I want people to be curious about these herbs. To proudly embrace their healing, spiritual and biological properties.

“In my family for instance, imbozisa, or fennel in English, is integral to our daily rituals and totems. Few people realise that this herb is a powerful antioxidant and we all need it, not necessarily for spiritual purposes.”

iKrele leChiza … The Sermon is a gift from our beautiful African ancestors, ngumphako wethu. The play features Makwetu, Nikani, Indalo Stofile, Nomakrestu Xakatugaga, Emmanuel Ntsamba and Nceba Gongxeka.

The Magnet Youth Company members involved in it are Azola Mkhabile, Buhle Stefane, Sipho Kalako, Thabo Mkenene, Kuhle Myathaza, Lindokuhle Melaphi, Mihlali Bele, Molupi Lepeli, Siphenathi Siqwayi, Wendy Mrali and Nosiphiwo Ndabeni.

Previously the artistic director of the Steve Biko Centre and the creative manager at the Artscape Theatre Centre, Mbothwe’s style is inspired by ancient storytelling traditions and the vision of the majestic Greek poet, Homer.

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His top plays include Isivuno sa maphupha (Harvesting of dreams), Ingcwaba le ndoda lise cankwedlela (The grave of the man is next to the road), Umyenzo we zandi (Eden of sounds), Inxeba lo mphilisi (The wound of a healer), Voices of women and Ukutshona ko Mendi (The sinking of the Mendi).

. iKrele runs at The Baxter Flipside Theatre from Thursday to April 8 at 7.30pm. Saturday matinees are on March 25 at noon and on April 1 and 8 at 3pm . Tickets are available through webtickets.co.zaand at Pick n Pay stores. 

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