Embracing the other: Ubuntu’s cross-cultural journey at the Citadel

Andile Nebulane in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Murray Mitchell.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The play that opens on the Citadel’s Maclab stage Thursday wasn’t born, like other plays, in a story, a character, an image.

Ubuntu would end up with all of the above, unspooling in dance, movement, music, and dialogue in both English and Xhosa. But  “we started with nothing. Nothing but a desire for connection,” says Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran of the origins of the play he co-created with Canadian and South African actors. Ubuntu borrows its name from a South African word that’s a veritable ode to human interconnectedness. Rough translation: “I am because you are.”

Like its creators, its characters, and its cast, Ubuntu has a pedigree that spans continents. And a history that goes back a decade and a half, to the moment Cloran went to Cape Town to bring the Baxter Theatre Centre there, in person, a cross-cultural proposition.

Who was the Daryl Cloran of 2004? He and a bunch of his Queen’s University theatre school pals, as the man says with a smile, “had moved to Toronto to make it big and start a company…. At first you do plays with your friends. But as it evolved we wanted Theatrefront to be a company that didn’t have a building but (instead) worked internationally. So we started to build partnerships.”

One was a collaboration with Bosnian artists that became Return: The Sarajevo Project, which garnered a name in innovation (and a cluster of Dora Award nominations) in its Toronto premiere a few years later.

Meanwhile, Cloran had contacted Mannie Manim at the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town, a notably tri-cultural city with large black African, Afrikaans and Muslim populations. “He’d been the artistic director at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, the first theatre there to have black and white actors onstage together,” says Cloran. “We reached out to companies that had an interesting performance style, theatre that was a voice for social change, theatre that was more than just entertainment….”

So it came to pass that Canadian and South African actors found themselves together, scriptless but game, in a rehearsal room in Toronto.  For Mbulelo Grootboom, a South African actor/co-creator who’s been in every incarnation, workshop, and touring production of Ubuntu, the attraction was “different cultures; how we’re similar, how we’re different: the interconnections.”

Andile Nebulane and Mbulelo Grootboom in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Murray Mitchell.

His cast-mate and fellow creator Andile Nebulane, another original member of the Ubuntu creative team, echoes the thought. “It’s the excitement of waiting to see what’s going to come out when we co-operate and collectively create, starting with a blank page. You don’t know what to prep; you just get there first day, you have this bunch of creatives in a room, and the aim is to end up with a play!”

What happened, grins director Cloran, was a study in cultural  contrasts. Canadians hauled out pen and paper, and prepared to take notes. “These guys start dancing, moving,” he says affectionately of the South Africans. “They get up!” 

Grootboom and Nebulane laugh. “Africans are, naturally, physically expressive people,” says the former. “Canadians come from the head first, then the body will follow.”

“For me personally,” says Nebulane (whose English, incidentally, is excellent, with a poetic flair), “it’s rooted in a language barrier. You’re in a room, and you have to make sense in English, which is my third language. I know exactly what I want to express, but I cannot explain in words. So, let’s do it!”

“Our characters came from that, from improv,” he says. And so did the story. The narrative, Cloran explains, happens in two time periods, 30 years apart. “A young South African’s father left him when he was a year old. Now that he’s 30 the son comes to Canada to find his father. And when he gets here, the mystery surrounding his father’s departure starts to unravel.”

“It becomes very much about identity and belonging and family, our connections to each other across the globe, the idea of ubuntu that a person is a person through other persons, how much people are entwined in each other’s lives….”

Andile Nebulane and Eric Goulem in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Murray Mitchell.

Grootboom, who plays the father Philani, says the character “came from the body first,” and from “personal experience” of a fractured family that is the dramatic engine of Ubuntu. “You don’t have a script so you have to tap on yourself…. And it’s a universal thing: we all have dysfunctional families. We all have our baggage, our skeletons….”

“At one point we had seven hours of material,” says Nebulane, who plays the son Jabba, whose quest for a long-lost father takes him across the world. “You have to be truthful, and not precious, about your creativity. A lot was stripped away. So you can’t be saying ‘Oh no! It took me 20 minutes to create this monologue and now it’s gone!’”

Time has passed since Ubuntu premiered at Tarragon in 2009. Cloran has a tangible reminder of that: “Our now nine-year-old son was six months old when we did it; we have a picture of him sitting on one of the suitcases of the set….”

In 2012, while Cloran was artistic director of Kamloops’ Western Canada Theatre, Ubuntu toured the West. Except for Grootboom and Nebulane, other members of the original collective, including Cloran’s actor wife Holly Lewis, have come, left for other projects, returned, left again. One of the originals, David Jansen, is back for the Edmonton production. 

Tracey Power and Mbulelo Grootboom in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Murray Mitchell.

“Partly because of the strength of the African performers, this is a very physical show. For the first 20 minutes, there’s almost no dialogue. There’s a lot of movement and the scenes that do have dialogue are entirely in Xhosa. So it (invites) very physical storytelling…. Watching it now in rehearsal, I’m struck by how layered it’s become over the years, how many great ideas we discovered as we began to know each other, each other’s beliefs and ways of telling a story.”

For Nebulane, the cross-cultural collaboration that created Ubuntu is inseparable from its point. “The process of making the play actually IS the play. How it was created is exactly what the play is talking about.”

And it’s not as if its insights into the immigrant experience have been dulled by time. Au contraire. “What’s happening in the world is so painful,” sighs M. “The fear of the other, the unknown: the play explores that…. Because America is the most powerful system in the world, whatever happens there trickles down through the world….” 

“I don’t see Ubuntu aging,” says Nebulane. “This is a play of a lifetime. Any time, anywhere, anyone can relate.. It’s about breaking walls and the bubbles that people are living in. Sometimes I’m backstage, listening for my cue. And I think ‘Wow! How did we come up with THAT?’”


Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project

Theatre: Citadel/ Prairie Theatre Exchange

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Mbulelo Grootboom, Andile Nebulane, Erin McMcGrath, Tracey Power, David Jansen

Running: through Oct. 22

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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