Smoke and Mirrors Collaborative
Ndebele Funeral by Zoey Martinson is set in a small shack of a Soweto slum. For all its exuberant energy and fine acting it is a deeply pessimistic view of current South Africa.
Much of the play concerns itself with the often funny and generally moving meeting of two long time friends. The reasonably successful Mandisi (Yusef Miller) arrives at Thandi’s (Zoey Martinson) home where the door falls in and decaying food clutters the floor.
He is determined to raise her spirits and perhaps even persuade her to go back with him to live with his family. She, though a qualified doctor, is incredibly poor, has for some time been suffering from AIDS and seems to have given up hope. There is a warm closeness and smartness of dialogue in their relationship which makes this play well worth seeing.
As they talk, a white government official wanders the area looking for her dwelling to check she has used a government gift of wood correctly to repair her shack. She hasn’t. Instead she has built herself coffin.
The play’s weakness lies in its determination to press everything into a message of despair. Early on, two of the characters perform the subversive gumboot dance which has an historic association with resistance. Here, it simply highlights the loss of a politics that inspired resistance. According to Thandi, the ANC government is corrupt, and of African Democracy she can simply say, "They piss on our faces".
Thandi is an intelligent doctor whose depression has reached the level where she cannot even feed herself. Yet we are expected to believe she can be bothered to spend her time making a huge coffin which sits centre stage large enough to accommodate the entire cast and crew, when it could never be used to bury anyone.
It is an improbable prop meant by the writer to symbolise what South Africa has to offer and in the process imposing a distortion on the expression of Thandi’s character. Later, Martinson expects us to believe that Mandisi will commit an even more improbable act.
As for the white official de Klerk, who bears the name of the last white President of South Africa under apartheid and takes his turn to sit in the coffin, he serves as comic relief and a symbol of the absurd fall from comfort and power of the white minority.
This is a watchable, well acted play. But it does not offer much insight into the current state of South Africa. It also distorts, often melodramatically, both its story and the development of its characters in the pursuit of a deeply pessimistic message.