Dimpho Di Kopan’s spectacular signature piece, “Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries,” provides a sublime introduction to the work of this internationally acclaimed but locally unseen South African company. An exuberant enactment of biblical tales from the Chester cycle of English mystery plays — created by members of medieval craft guilds for the edification of the common people — DDK’s lyric dance-theater piece is performed in glorious voice on the bare floorboards of a beautiful old church. Gorgeously crafted with folk-art simplicity and infused with the faith of its ensemble members, it is both a reverential act of worship and a breathtaking work of art.
The professional savvy behind this extraordinary indigenous company comes from Mark Dornford-May and Charles Hazelwood of London’s Broomhill Opera Company, who went into the poorest of South Africa’s black townships to recruit this ensemble of gifted amateurs from local gospel choirs.
In adapting material for the company’s unique musical talents, the directors chose classical works like Bizet’s “Carmen,” Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” and Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen,” all currently playing in rep with the “Mysteries” (through Nov. 26) as part of a broader visual and performing arts program. (A feature-film version of “U-Carmen,” coming out in 2005, could further enhance the company’s reputation.)
To the accompaniment of native drummers pounding with sticks on oil drums, the barefoot ensemble opens its narrative with the Christian creation myth, moves on to familiar Bible stories and concludes with an enactment of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Performed in English, Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans and the universal language of choral song and dance, the storytelling is at once poignant and powerful.
With ingenuity born of necessity, the resourceful company raids the rag-bag for makeshift props and costume parts to enhance its traditional storytelling techniques. Angels are easily identified by the white chicken feathers sticking out of their bowler hats. A deftly wielded watering can produces the great flood that floats Noah’s ark. One bale of hay is enough to suggest the humble stable where Christ is born. Two crossed ladders are all that is needed for a riveting Crucifixion scene.
For all its simplicity, there is an astonishing amount of artistry in the performance style. The bare-chested actor (Andile Kosi) who spreads his arms and announces “I am God” projects the serene authority to give weight to his claim. The roly-poly Noah (Sibusiso “Otto” Ziqubu) who has to plead with his willful wife (Ruby Mthethwa) to get her on board the Ark conveys the comical exasperation of every man who has had to carry his wife’s shopping bags. And the grizzled Abraham (Jim Ngxabaze) who raises his knife to Isaac (Andiswa Kedama) has the heartbreaking expression of every father who has had to say goodbye to a beloved son.
Like any much-told tale that adapts itself to the sensibility of the storytellers, these ancient biblical stories are also part of a people’s living tradition. In this spirit, the company puts a witty and entirely modern interpretation on certain aspects of the old legends.
When proud Lucifer (Andries Mbali) is dashed off to hell, his satanic majesty emerges in the flashy red-leather suit of a pimp. When the skies clear and the waters of the great flood recede, the survivors on Noah’s ark break into a spirited Calypso version of “You Are My Sunshine.” When threats are made on the people of Israel, their tormentors haul out tires for the burning necklaces of African executions. And when Christ is crucified, the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross wear paramilitary uniforms and carry sjambok truncheons.
At two hours and change, the piece runs well to form. But it could stand a bit more length to allow for expansion on songs and dances that feel as if they have been streamlined for export.
Vocal pieces like the exquisite duet between Mary (Lungelwa Blou) and the Angel Gabriel (Mvuyisi Mjali) are well and truly savored, but some of the choral numbers seem to come to ground just as they take wing. Or perhaps we just don’t want this company of true believers, with their rafter-raising gospel voices and envigorating dance energy, to go away and leave us in the dark.