Digging deep into land grief: Play unearths blackness, land issues

Ankobia, the most eagerly awaited play by 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist award winner for theatre, Monageng “Vice” Motshabi, opened at the festival on Friday.

Motshabi, 35, interviewed soon after he arrived in Grahamstown where symbols and statues recalling white settler history assailed him, spoke about how the new play, produced by the Market Theatre, delves into the deep physical, psychological, social, economical and political understanding of what it is to be a black person in South Africa and Africa today.

PROFOUND CHALLENGE: Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for theatre, Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi, right, and choreographer Teresa Phuti Mojela ahead of the opening of Motshabi’s play ‘Ankobia’ at the National Arts Festival yesterday Picture: MIKE LOEWE

Land is at the core of the piece, which is set in the futuristic land of Polodikgadile 34 years from now.

It is a bleak place, where the state’s “joy machine” has wiped out any memories of the past, and the regime bans all thoughts of displeasure, especially expressions against social injustice.

Motshabi says the play has its roots in dispossession under apartheid when his own family was forefully removed from TseTse near Ventersdorp, and from the work Yurugu, by black anthropologist Marimba Ani which references the Ankobi, a term in the Ashanti Twi language spoken in Ghana which refers to courageous leaders particularly in battle.

Penning and crafting Ankobia was a profound challenge bringing revelations about blackness and land dispossession in South Africa today.

He said: “We had to figure out how to make it work properly as a play. We wrote draft after draft. We discovered more and kept rewriting. Now we are seeing the vision of exactly what we are doing.

“Primarily, we want to celebrate and elevate the spirit of those who really want to rise up and serve black people, people who are aware that our journey and evolutionary path has been tampered with.

“Those scars will take a lot to process and navigate and transcend.

“Central to the question of our identity and future is the question of the land. So the work celebrates those who, in this difficult time, echo this issue, about how land should be restored or taken back.”

Talking of his family’s experience, he said: “We had a space, a home, stability, a community and it was uprooted because of the possibility that there were diamonds in the old land.

“Land dispossession was violent, and it is impossible to see how it will be handed back.

“The play goes into that place of violence in 2041. People are forcefully taking the land back and there is resistance and that launches the play.

“The play is a celebration of people I know who represent the spirit of the Ankobi, who give me courage, clarity and meaning and who challenge me as a creative.

“I have also been responding to the frustration inside my own body when seeing how difficult it is for white people, most of the time, to understand the pain black people keep referring to.

“This tension and discomfort at not being heard, seen or recognised has been a meaningful place to start.”

He speaks about the compelling broader issues in the work.

“For a lot of black people we are secondary citizens because we follow systems and ways of life set for us by others.”

This is deep and significant material, but he says they wrestled with audience response.

“We began from a place of serious things, and as it took that shape, we felt we were squeezing the fun out of it. We don’t want to torture an audience into agreeing with us. So we re-imagined it and now there’s a lot of humour.”

Motshabi speaks about whiteness.

“We need a future whiteness which can understand this for what it is and which seeks something bigger.” — mikel@dispatch.co.za

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