Ubuntu Bursts with Rhythm and Heart

Ubuntu is a South African word that is loosely translated to “I am because you are,” a sentiment that not only pulsates through the collective creation of the same name ending its run at Tarragon Theatre tomorrow and opening at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre (in association with Theatrefront) March 10th, 2009, but it also reflects on the process of two different cultures coming together to create a work of art. Ubuntu is the product of four and a half years of collaboration, improvisation and workshops between artists in Cape Town, South Africa and Toronto, Ontario. I was drawn in immediately to the world of these characters and captivated by both the language and the brilliant physicality of the piece. Overall, I felt as though I had been left with a lot on which to ruminate.
If the Out-Of-Africa theory of origins of modern humans is correct, the South African belief in one’s connection to community and ancestry- that of Ubuntu- does in fact incorporate the entire human race into one shared community and ancestry. So, when two very different cultures seek to collaborate in the rehearsal hall, is there a focus on celebrating how we are different or a need to find some sort of common ground?
Ubuntu isn’t the melting pot. The melting pot is the place where culture goes to die. Instead the play holds each culture distinctly in the same hand, keeping them in close contact, without trying to mash them together. The result is a story about Jabba (Andile Nebulane), a young South African man embarking on a quest to find his father Philani (Mbulebo Grootboom), and in the process he unearths a beautiful buried love story that changes a family forever. Despite the lack of melting pot, it’s interesting to me that theatre critics have generally split the play into the “South African” part and the “Canadian” part, based on the geography and the style of theatre associated with each one. Many say that the “South African” bit is dynamic and vibrant and full of promise, but then the “Canadian” bit is banal, it’s ordinary. I wonder how much that is a huge assumption for us to make. We are interested in things that are different, sure, but it’s dangerous to put things in a vacuum and to get pulled into exoticism for the sake of being exotic. Perhaps the point is, that as “banal” as they may seem to some people, the search for one’s past and beautiful love stories aren’t just Canadian themes.
Mbulelo Grootboom spoke eloquently and passionately at the Talkback I attended after the show about the astronomically large influence the British colonizers had in the development of present-day Cape Town. He said that he “lives in this Western civilization, but that [he] is African in it.” He went to the University of Cape Town, where he said the demographics were about 15% African, and so he is continually struggling to reclaim his own culture, and to find his own identity within a society that has been constructed by a Western vision. Cape Town doesn’t exist in a pure African form, but the African element doesn’t have to disappear into some melting pot either. Balance is key in life, as in art. Grootboom says that there is 80% of him in Ubuntu and I bet that that percentage is not divided up neatly between the two scenes that take place in Africa.
Daryl Cloran’s direction is absolutely superb. In Ubuntu I saw some of the best and most captivating physical theatre that I have ever seen. There is a beautiful library dance, and a chair fight that had me enthralled with wonderment, and Lorenzo Savoini’s suitcase set (an illusion to the quests we take and the baggage we drag along with us) is filled with surprises and revolving doors, which makes entrances and exits fraught with urgency. Christian Barry’s sound design is the heartbeat of the show; it pulsates with life, and love and immediacy.
I found it striking that Ubuntu means “I am because you are,” a sentiment firmly rooted in community and the body, as opposed to the common Western adage, Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” which is extremely individualized and centered only in the brain. In the same way, I found Nebulane and Grootboom’s acting style was so rooted in the body, Grootboom gave Philani this incredible limp that seemed so animated and alive, it was almost its own character in the play- an added depth he could put on or shed as though it were a green coat. The body was all that was needed, sometimes, to convey the message, as there were moments when the characters spoke a language most of the Toronto audience did not understand. That said; I found magnificence shone from Michelle Monteith as Sarah, an earnest, diffident girl with frequent bursts of pure light and humanity organically tumbling forth. Holly Lewis manages to balance the snarky pain of the grieving Libby with true tenderness, compassion and curiosity which thankfully elevates her from being “typical 20 year old girl” to an individual in her own right. There is very little that is sympathetic in Michael (David Jansen), and although it does seem sort of convenient, it is nice to have one character on which the audience is able to dump emotions of frustration, anger, and ultimately blame.
I did find that there were small tidbits of “Canadiana” that screamed “stereotype” in Ubuntu. I wondered about all the winter jokes, before remembering that we actually do seem to wear our tolerance to the cold like a badge of honor. An Albertan friend of mine scoffed at me as I walked shivering one freezing August night in Edmonton the same way that I scoffed at my roommates that one time it snowed in February in Vancouver. That being said, as a University of Toronto student, I so very rarely see students drinking Tim Horton’s coffee that it seemed like a stretch to me. Does that matter? I can’t decide. So much of our culture is draped over us from the United States; perhaps it is time for us to be asserting our own independence.
In the end, I’m not sure how much of Ubuntu comes from South Africa and how much comes from Toronto. I’m not sure how much of South Africa is African and how much of Toronto is Canadian. As I walked home late on a clichéd freezing Toronto night, I found myself trying to make a clicking sound with my tongue all the way down Howland Avenue. Why did I do that? Because I was curious to see if I could? Was it some sort of acting challenge? Or was I trying to, in some small way, reclaim something, to assert myself into this community and pay homage to my ancestors- because I am because you are.

Ubuntu plays at Neptune Theatre in Halifax, Nova Scotia March 10-March 29th 2009 at the Studio Theatre. 1593 Argyle Street. For tickets call the Box office at (902) 429-7070 or visit their website.

(this is me and my best friend in 1989. we used to be baffled whenstrangers wouldn’t believe us when we told them we were sisters.ubuntu also made me think of how lovely it was to be that four year old child)
As a complete aside, I was struck by one of the lasting images of the play, the idea that “we are walking towards each other. We’re walking home.” The image is a beautiful one, but the truth is, that while we are coming together again, we are not returning to Africa. As a matter of fact, we are turning our backs on Africa. I just did a seminar on this topic for school, so it is in my head and close to my heart. Did you know that today people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are dying at a rate of an estimated 45,000 per month? 45,000 people (mostly children under five) die every. single. month. I would encourage you to delve into some research on the Congo, and other impoverished countries, not because it’s easy or because a solution will instantly gobsmack you (it won’t), but because apathy kills.

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