Preview: Afrovibes

Kevin Bourke hears how the 2012 Afrovibes festival has managed to secure some of the best of the region’s artistic talent – and poignant tales

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These days it seems it’s not enough for a festival to offer a high quality programme of theatre, dance, music and spoken word. That might be why South African biennial festival Afrovibes, which is visiting the north throughout October, has pulled out all the stops this year.

Throughout the festival its township cafés offer authentic African fare plus debates, post-show talks, late night music and workshops, “allowing audiences and participants to dig deeper into the life and mindset of this extraordinary country”, explains Jan Ryan, director of promoters UK Arts International.

This year features a dance double bill including Inception, choreographed and performed by Sonia Radebe, and My Exile Is In My Head, inspired by Wole Soyinka’s prison notes and choreographed and performed by Qudus Onikeku. Thirst, based on Baldini’s The Water Carriers, was nominated for the Naledi Award 2010 for best new South African play, while the exuberant nine-piece band The Sibikwa Arts African Indigenous Orchestra explore how original African compositions can blend with jazz.

The immense popularity of the comedy And The Girls In Their Sunday Dresses at the famous Market Theatre in Johannesburg has helped anoint its director, 27-year-old Princess Mhlongo, as one of the country’s hottest young talents. “You could say it’s like a female Waiting For Godot, where our two characters, a domestic worker The Woman and The Lady – a retired prostitute who considers herself a sophisticated woman of the world – meet during a long wait in a queue to buy cheap rice,” she says.

“At my first audition for such a famous theatre, I wasn’t even sure if I could really call myself a director, especially when I found out that I couldn’t do the piece I was planning to do there and had to find something else in a hurry. But when I read this piece by Zakes Mokae, I realised it would give me a great chance to work with two of my country’s most acclaimed comedians, Lesego Motsepe and Hlengiwe Lushaba.”

Other theatrical highlights include Mother To Mother, starring leading South African actress, playwright and musician Thembi Mtshali-Jones. This moving monologue tells the story of American Fullbright scholar Amy Biehl, senselessly killed in Cape Town by four youths after she’d travelled to South Africa to help register voters for the post-apartheid country’s first democratic election. The mother of one of them recounts events in an imaginary conversation with Amy’s mother.

Although Mtshali-Jones, a veteran of the South African theatre and music business, who toured the world in the hit musical Ipi Tombi and as a singer with Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba, heard about the tragedy when it happened in 1993, she only saw its theatrical possibilities after reading the book Mother To Mother by award-winning writer Sindiwe Mgona, then living in the United States.

“Sindiwe was astonished to discover her former neighbour’s son was one of the killers of Amy Biehl,” reports Mtshali-Jones.

“She also learned that all of the four young men were convicted and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment for her murder and then, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, the young men applied for amnesty. Determined to honour Amy’s love of South Africa and her belief in the truth and reconciliation process, Amy’s parents came over from America to participate in the Commission’s hearings and supported amnesty for the youths, who were released from prison in 1998.

“Now two of them are working for the Foundation that was set up to honour Amy’s memory. It’s a remarkable story about the old and new South Africa and the possibilities of understanding and even redemption,” she believes.

“Of course, it speaks very directly to any mother who’s lost a child, because the mother of the killer also suffers through no fault of her own. But, for me, it’s also a universal story.”

Afrovibes festival, 1-7 Oct, The Dukes, Lancaster; 8-14 Oct, Unity Theatre & The Black-E, Liverpool; 15-20 October, Contact Theatre, Manchester

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