Four orphaned girls, obsessed by death, have been exiled from their tiny South African village. They take up residence on the other side of the village – close to the cemetery – and occupy their days enacting their own irreverant versions of the community’s burial rituals. However, their rebellious defiance catches up with them and they find that death, for all they hate to think it, cannot always be fooled.
Much of the performance is delivered in the beautiful clicking langauge, Xhosa, with enough dialogue delivered in English to enable us to follow the story. Performers Thumeka Mzayiya, Awethu Hleli, Sisipho Mbopa and Nolufefe Ntshuntshe are wonderfully talented. Despite being a little older than the children they’re playing, their recreation of childhood and of the ever-shifting dynamics between a group of children is spot on. The two older girls call the shots but the cheeky, younger pranksters are the favourites. All four women are glorious singers.
A spare but evocative set is used imaginatively by writer and director Koleka Putuma. The girls creep, dance, process, promenade across the set. They also hide in it, sleep – and have nightmares – atop it. Lighting is distinct and punctuates the slightly surreal world that Putuma creates. The costumes are candy-coloured, adding vibrancy to the morbid setting.
Putuma is a South African writer, poet, performaner and playwright. She uses her work to explore and confront the sometimes difficult issues of black people living in South Africa. She believes that confronting and discussing these issues can help people to heal. She’s also interested in the female battle for equality, intersectionality in particular.
In this context, her play becomes more than a funny, sweet and at times sad depiction of the cruelty, carelessness and quest for comfort inherent in childhood. It also becomes a reflection on the fact that women can play a pivotal role within a ceremonial occasion – the ritual of burial – that is often male-dominated in a traditional (usually Western) society. It explores the idea that women who perform unexpected roles in society can be shunned rather than celebrated. And perhaps also, Mbuzeni can be heard as a lament for a country falling under unanswered questions.