The centuries-old art of Xhosa storytelling has been brought alive by two new plays making their début at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year – both with an exciting new twist of using puppets.
Armed with miniature sets and strong narration, crew members of both Red Earth Revisited and Qhawe use lifelike puppets to act out the stories.
Red Earth Revisited tells the story of young Xhosa prophetess Nonqawuse, whose prophesy is said to have led to the downfall of the Xhosa nation in the Eastern Cape.
According to the history books, the invasion of the British had left people weak with no positive hope for the future.
This was until a young girl returned home from the river one day saying the ancestors had visited her and delivered a message.
She was to tell her people to kill and burn all their cattle and crops, as riches bigger than anything they had ever imagined were coming.
Many believed, with the non-believers slaughtered or forced to flee to safety.
Though this is the version that has largely been documented in history books, folklore tells a slightly different story.
The play brings the different versions together, leaving it up to the audience to decide what they believe.
Relying on an eight-man crew, each armed with a puppet, the play tells of a time when the Xhosa nation lived on the rolling hills and valleys dotting the countryside, when their houses were round and they painted their faces white with clay.
Writer Saskia Janse, from the Dutch Puppet Theatre Company, said the inspiration to write the play had come from one of the crew members who had contacted her, telling her about a dream to produce a play based on a piece of local history.
“His aim was to tell the Xhosa people a story about their own because he said many didn’t know their own history,” she said.
“When I arrived, the first thing I did was to travel across the Eastern Cape speaking with people because I wanted to make this play as authentic as possible.”
The use of puppets, Janse explained, provided them more freedom as puppets often made better actors than humans.
“A puppet can travel across the world in a single scene on the stage but to set that up for an actor would not be so easy. Also, during a play it’s chaotic and confusing to have too many people on the stage,” said Janse.
Qhawe, with a similar setting, tells the story of a prince who was forced to take a second wife when he discovered that his first wife was barren.
Jealousy, revenge and hate are the main themes in this Xhosa fantasy, told by a crew of six to the background of traditional music, dancing and much ululating.
The show was produced by the Mais-Puppet Company.
Red Earth Revisited is expected to come to East London after the festival, although Janse could not provide dates. — email@example.com