Originally published: Laugh it off Annual 2003, page 74
On Tuesday 14 August 2003, the Cape Argus led with the headline: “Murder Most Fowl”. This was the story of chicken slaughtered at Cape Town’s prestigious Baxter Theatre, during a play by the nation’s enfant terrible of African theatre, Brett Bailey, and his theatre company, “third world bunfight” (twb). The play: iMUMBO JUMBO – The Days of Miracle and Wonder. That fateful day was an apt end to the most enchantingly bizarre and exhilarating four months of my life. It all began with a surprise call in early May from Barbara Mathers, General Manager of “twb”, and best friend of and PA to Brett Bailey. “Remember you said you wouldn’t mind helping me in the twb office?” she asked. “I’d love to!” I replied instantly. Famous last words.
iMUMBO JUMBO is the true story of Xhosa Chief Nicholas Tilana Gcaleka (driver, priest, liquor salesman and guru), and his sacred and quixotic quest to return the skull of his ancestor, Paramount Chief Hintsa of the amaXhosa. The story is told in breathtaking Brett Bailey fashion, exploding with ritual physicality and bursting with the styles, sounds and dance of local township, rural Transkei, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Cote d’Ivoire.
Five sangomas performed the spiritual rites and rituals in the production as well as in rehearsal. Brett hoped to invoke the ancestral spirits’ assistance in the portrayal of a famous African sangoma. This he achieved, because of the sangomas, the ancestors, the openness and willingness of the entire company and his belief in African spirituality and mysticism. But it came at a price: the rituals required time, belief, sweet, vodka, brandy and chickens.
Out of respect for the sangomas, we shall give them fictitious names. The “grande dame” we shall call Mombasa, a diminutive mama who carried herself with the dignity of an African Queen Mother. There was an African Queen, whom we’ll name Mpumalanga, who exuded the vivacity of township attitude with a loving maternal aura. Then there were the two male sangomas. The first, “Zanzibar”, meditated between the soothing spirits of vodka and brandy; the second: the chicken killer, a pretty boy with the grace and majesty of a giraffe and the manner of a precocious African princess, we’ll call Ntombe Thonga. Our final sangoma-in-training, we’ll name Serengeti for her patience and mild manner.
iMUMBO JUMBO played at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and was presented on the Fringe programme. The show played at the Barbican Theatre in London before finishing its 2003 tour at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.
Our trip to Grahamstown was long, but any tedium was erased by the realization that it would be anything but uneventful. First off, I nearly missed the trip and had to travel with Brett and the rest of the cast that weren’t in the men’s microbus or in the sangomas’ bus. Needless to say our microbus rocked with the sound of maskandi, Kwaito, and soul, interspersed with cheerful chatter and banter. The men’s microbus disappeared ahead of us in true long-distance taxi style. . . dangerously. The sangoma bus, driven by our conscientious general manager, cruised just below the speed limit.
As we entered Plettenberg Bay, my phone rang. It was Barbara, “Odidi, I know you’ll think this is funny, but this is serious. Please tell Brett one of the sangomas has lost her spirits and we have stopped off in Knysna to get her a nip of vodka to try and regain them. . .”
That was all I heard as I convulsed in laughter. You see, I wasn’t too sure if the sangomas had lost their spirits because of the dramatic entrance to Wilderness and the ocean’s strong energy, or if they were driven mad from the sheer boredom of driving at 90 km/h on a national road listening to Dolly Parton (Barbara’s favourite driving music). To make things more difficult, the sangoma in the drama was none other than Queen Mother Mombasa, and her spirits only drank Smirnoff vodka
We arrived in Grahamstown late only to find one of our microbus in the middle of the High Street and Somerset Rd Junction in front of Rhodes University, stagnant and flashing hazards. It was the men’s microbus, which had run out of petrol. Dues paid for driving too fast!
iMUMBO JUMBO’s run was a resounding success especially considering Fringe programme attendance was low and our production was 10 minutes outside Grahamstown in the township of Rhini.
The trip to London followed from the 10 to 19 July 2003. Three of us were left in Cape Town to manage the next leg of the tour at the Baxter Theatre. The show opened on the 10 July, but we heard no news until the 13th.
“… Well, opening night went well but it wasn’t great (like wow, wow). The sangomas have all lost their spirits (seriously). So the energy’s a bit low, but the audiences are good …”
The Cape Town season of iMUMBO JUIMBO went well besides booking buses for schools whose numbers we had clue of, until the kids arrivd for the performance. We overbooked, underbooked, but the rest was always the same: the satisfaction of over 50 pairs of youthful eyes taking in indigenous African theatre, enjoying it and then discussing African culturte, spirituality and mysticism.
I once asked Brett why he revived iMUMBO JUMBO. He answered, “I wanted to do a play to draw South African youth into theatre. iMUMBO JUMBO gives value to African traditional views which will inspire a love of theatre in young people. It’s a story [of hope that] I’d like to go far. I’d like it to reach as many people as possible, for I believe the play breaks down barriers and opens doors.”
Brief background of author: Odidi Mfenyana is a performing artist, writer, and production manager for Third World Bunfight. Here he shares some of his diary extracts from the time he spent working on iMumbo Jumbo.
This article has been reproduced with permission.