Sherman Cymru, Cardiff
Mon 15-Sat 20 Oct
words: MAB JONES
Afrovibes promised exactly that – a ‘vibe’ (emotion, feeling, mental state) that is purely, potently, passionately, African. And, this promise was delivered, over the course of six wonderful days at Sherman Cymru in Cardiff. Offering a feast of dance, drama, and, delightfully for this poet, daring spoken word, Afrovibes was a buzz of brilliance from start to finish with excellent acting, insightful poetry, cutting-edge choreography, as well as a true taste of Africa with some delicious dishes available courtesy of Canton restaurant Tribe Tribe (I had the chilli beef, fried plantain, boiled rice with peas and sweetcorn, and yam chips – delicious!).
So, in order of appearance, let me try to share with you the superb superlative-ness of Afrovibes, if you were silly enough not to go along…
First up, And The Girls In Their Sunday Dresses was a fantastically acted two-person piece, with Hlengiwe Lushaba and Lesogo Motsepe playing their parts so well that it was almost impossible to recognise them/their faces afterwards! They really ‘became’ the roles so that I was truly caught up in the characters, their histories and experiences, thoughts and feelings, broken dreams and harsh realities… Playing an ageing, overweight, down-on-her-luck prostitute and a diminutive, funny-faced, God-worshipping apartment cleaner respectively, I was reminded a little of the contrasting size and statures of Laurel and Hardy, and the comic timing here, too, was excellent. The Waiting for Godot-like premise which drew the characters together seemed less a ploy than a frustrating reality – waiting in line for days to buy cheap rice – while the sequence of paper-signing/shuffling bureaucracies at the play’s conclusion offered a cutting, yet comedic, indictment of a government going against good sense. An excellent, exactly-right mix of pathos, parody, and humour had me of thinking about this play until the next day, when I went to see…
Thirst. Written and directed by James Ngcobo, this told the tale of three water carriers who are called upon to partake in a quest. It is a time of great drought and the survival of all tribes is under direct threat. The water carriers must search for the source of the dried-up river if they are to live. Blending exquisite physical theatre, traditional storytelling, dynamic dance sequences, and wonderful, spine-tingling moments of harmonious group song, this story, inspired by Nguni myth, was perhaps the highlight of the festival for me.
Mother To Mother was a monologue based on a true story, that of American Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl, who was murdered by an angry mob in Cape Town in 1993. This terrible event was seen here from the perspective of one of the mob member’s mothers, primarily the parent of one of the four young men who was responsible for stabbing the student. Played out against a backdrop of images from the township where Mandisa, the mother, lives, this was a heart-rending re-enactment of a terrible happening… In her kitchen, Mandisa movingly portrayed a mother’s anguish, the simple script allowing the actress, Thembi Mtshali-Jones, to run the full gamut of emotion, from puzzlement, to incredulity, to despair… The simple scenery, too, added much to the poignancy of the tale. A powerfully moving piece indeed.
The next night, we were treated to some music, courtesy of the Sibikawa Arts African Indigenous Orchestra. This lively, multi-membered piece troupe really brought the rhythms of Africa to living, beating, breathing being! It was impossible not to tap toes or sway to the melodies, which seemed to sweep everyone up into a light and lovely mood. Traditional instruments such as the marimba, mbira, dikana pipes, drums and uhadi combined in a clever crossover of township jazz and jubilant Afrobeat, and an element of audience participation brought a particular vibrancy to proceedings. Needless to say, we all left the venue with eyes smiling.
As a poet, I was particularly looking forward to Friday’s show, which featured a trio of spoken word artists – London’s magnificent Zena Edwards, who I’d seen before on several occasions, and who’d never been less than fantastic; along with South Africa’s Mbali Vilakazi and Clara Opoku of the Netherlands/Ghana. However, only Zena made a live appearance, as the main body of work in this case was a video showing the poetry-writing and performance process. I do wish this had been live instead of recorded… As it was, Zena’s performance was pretty impressive. Exploring the little-touched (even with a barge pole!) topic of (black) female anger, Zena’s tube-set story was both strongly autobiographical and resoundingly interpersonal. I found her use of voices, comedic act-outs (a thing normally reserved for the stand-up circuit, but very effective here), and sound effects, very well done, and the issue of body confidence was one that had particular resonance for me. A brave and brilliantly-written spoken word work indeed.
Lastly, but by no means leastly, Saturday saw a duo of dance performances with Inception and My Exile Is In My Head. The first was a mesmerising and, again, highly personal piece that saw dancer/choreographer Sonia Radebe enter the darkened stage space wearing a lampshade as a hat! Complete with fully-lit bulb, this did not seem as bizarre as it sounds – more a Twin Peaks-esque twist in which the familiar becomes its strange, surreal opposite. The dancing itself sought to portray the fragility of female consciousness, and this, I thought, was successful. In contrast, the highly lauded My Exile Is In My Head, to me, seemed over-long and slightly self-indulgent. The subjectivity of a reviewer, I suppose! Based on the prison notes of Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, this work consisted of some highly impressive visuals, with dancer/choreographer Qudus Onikeku dancing on a stage composed of moving text; running rings around the stage in a gradually growing fit of physical and verbal frustration; and a shadow projection moving, genie-like, to the sound of live staccato guitar. Onikeku, it is true, was an impressive performer, but I kept expecting an end to the piece, which never seemed to arrive. Perhaps this was the point. In any case, I enjoyed the dance, in parts, although some editing would have made it more enjoyable for me.
In all, however, this was a vibrant, verbally and visually stunning festival, which filled our eyes, ears, and mouths (thanks again, Tribe Tribe!), with true African deliciousness. An experience I’m ecstatic to have enjoyed, and if you happened to miss it, then that is a great, great shame.