Magic surrealism opens portal to heroic history

STANDING OVATION: Award-Winning diector Thembela Madliki’s latest play, ‘Bayephi!’, won the 2017 Standard Bank Standing Ovation award, and features a student cast of, from left, Eric Mwenda Gitonga, Nandipha Mlati, Nompumelelo Kubheka, Siyabulela Javu and Ểtha Fillis. Picture: Lebogang Tlou

WINNER of the 2016 Most Promising Director Award Thembela Madliki returned to the National Arts Festival with a serious, urgent and hauntingly chilling message to convey from the past to the present through her production Bayephi!

Bayephi!, which translates to “where have they gone” follows the journey of Buntu and his baby sister Siphokazi’s roles in the history of South Africa. Buntu is one of the soldiers who embarked on the SS Mendi to fight for honour as South Africans, and survived to join Mkhonto weSizwe. Siphokazi, on the other hand, looks up to and reveres her brother, looking to “fill his boots” – which are represented by a giant pair of boots.

Madliki perfectly opened a portal between the past and the present using a cinematically appealing earthen set of dirt and boxes with a pair of old boots.

Her cast of Rhodes University drama students Eric Mwenda (Buntu), Nompumelelo Kubkeka and Siyabulela Javu (respectively playing Buntu and Siphokazi’s mother) and Nandipha Mlati and Eretha Fillis (respectively portraying Siphokazi), wove a lyrical journey through an almost forgotten chapter in the history of South Africa: the story of families which, generationally, fought for South Africa.

Beginning with a spine-chilling action sequence depicting the deaths of the soldiers, and a haunting resurrection of voices which have become lost to the pages of untold history – in what could pass as modern theatrical necromancy – Bayephi! is as much a celebration of the past in the present, as it is a beckoning of the future in the present should the past remain overlooked by the tides of reality.

Madliki, a Masters student at the Rhodes University drama department workshopped her production playing on surreal tropes – invoking voices of a family wrecked by the imbalances in our society which have been caused by the whips of history awakening the warriors inherent in us all.

Bayephi! weaves together the progression of the elevation and historical contributions of Africans in developing and defending South Africa, beautifully depicting scenes from the SS Mendi, apartheid and the chaos from the early ’90s during the transitioning years into democratisation.