South African theater has reached the outside world in waves. First came the Apartheid plays by Athol Fugard and the Market Theater of Johannesburg. Next were stories of elation and hope — epitomized by the joyful harmonies of the Soweto Gospel Choir. Now, playwrights have begun facing the realities of a less than perfect freedom. Like Paul Grootboom and Presley Chweneyagae, whose 2006 “Township Stories” exposed South African poverty, Omphile Molusi in “Itsoseng” depicts a country in which the slow pace of change is crushing the old political idealism. If the writer-performer’s message lacks the dramatic highs and lows of earlier post-Apartheid theater, it is no less pertinent.
The production — which has enjoyed sell-out seasons at two venues in its U.K. debut in the Edinburgh Fringe and will transfer to London’s Soho Theater for a September run — could scarcely be more simple. The stage is empty but for 24-year-old Molusi, his suitcase and a scattering of discarded trash.
The actor leaves us in little doubt, however, about why he was selected as the recipient of a life-changing scholarship from the Royal Shakespeare Company that allowed him to receive classical training at Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Under the eye of helmer Tina Johnson, Molusi is a dynamic stage presence, his sense of life and movement creating a solo show that feels as if many more actors are involved. There’s a captivating rhythmic quality to his performance — a dance-like, loose-limbed physicality in his delivery as he circles the stage, draws in to the center and adopts the quirks and qualities of the characters he describes in this tale of 14 years of township life.
Molusi has a love of language and engrosses us with the energy of a man whose story needs to be heard.
That story is told in front of a shopping complex in the township of Itsoseng (which translates as “wake yourself up”), where a character called Mawilla describes the changes of the post-Apartheid years. There is a gentle irony in the setting; even at their most prosperous, the stores of Itsoseng would hardly have been a tourist attraction. But Molusi makes it clear how important they are as a focal point of the community and how much is lost when economic collapse forces such businesses to close.
The shopping center has a further significance: It was here in the months leading up to Nelson Mandela’s rise to power that the people indulged in a frenzy of looting — a rebellious and self-destructive gesture against their “stinking capitalist enemies.” That, concludes Mawilla, was the “beginning of our curse.” For all the radical change in South Africa, it could never have been rapid enough to stop the food from running out.
As the years go by, it becomes clear that poverty is the greatest enemy and that, coupled with local government inertia, is what precipitates the decline of a once vibrant township.
Molusi gives a human face to this in the sad stories of a political radical who has the revolutionary spirit knocked out of him, and of Dolly, Mawilla’s teenage sweetheart, drawn into prostitution. “Soon the people’s anger will boil over,” he says, suggesting it won’t be the last we hear from a country where so much has changed.