Igniting connections: a review of Ubuntu at the Citadel

Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

A son dreams nightly of his father. That’s how it starts.

But what sets Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project on its zigzag course through two time periods 30 years apart is an inspired perpetual motion scene, high-speed and word-free. It flings Jabba (Andile Nebulane), the young man, through the whizzing madhouse Cape Town restaurant where he works and out across the world — through airports, trains, buses, and passport control and pat-downs — to Canada in search of the elusive mystery man Philani (Mbulelo Grootboom) who haunts him.   

This knock-out kinetic scene is staged by director Daryl Cloran in a dazzling criss-cross of diagonals on the Citadel’s Maclab stage, against a cunning wall (designer: Lorenzo Savoini) constructed entirely of suitcases with secret revolving doors, niches, closets.

It’s a signal of what can happen when two theatrical traditions meet. And that is actually the provenance of this fascinating 2009 Theatrefront show, created collectively by Cloran and a cast of South African and Canadian actors in Toronto and at the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town.

With its clash of generations and cultures, past and present, what Ubuntu conjures is a mystery of identity only resolvable by embracing the idea that we’re all interconnected, through time and space. We don’t start fresh and autonomously; we cannot escape either our ancestors or the ripple effects we set in motion. And as the play’s university genetics professor character Michael (David Jansen) tells his students, we have roots in common anyhow since our origins are African.

The title, “ubuntu,” is a South African word that means roughly “I am because you are.” And the plot is a series of accumulating coincidences, small and large improbabilities that turn out to prove the point. Which means, I guess, they aren’t coincidences at all.

Anyhow, in the present, the rocketing arrival in Canada of Jabba, clutching a suitcase and a single Polaroid photo as a clue, is stopped cold — as cold as the weather — by his frosty reception. The professor who appears in the photo with his dad denies and stonewalls. The professor’s daughter Libby (Erin McGrath) who works in the library where Jabba tries to search the archives, is hostile. 

Andile Nebulane, Erin McGrath in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

 Counterpoint the past: Philani had arrived in Toronto 30 years ago to study microbiology. He gets a part-time job in the library, thanks to the professor, and sends money back every month to his little son in South Africa. It’s in the library the student from far away meets an anxious, sweetly nerdy grad student, Sarah (Tracey Power), who’s into the migratory patterns of birds, with a specialty in mating calls. And they fall in love.

As son and father the two South African actors, both magnetic, have an intensity and physical explosiveness about them that ignites the stage. And it happens in both the movement/dance outbursts, inspired by South African practice, and the more verbal scenes (mostly in English, sometimes in Xhosi) that are more traditional in Canadian theatre. Director Cloran marries them theatrically in a way that makes the former natural, inevitable eruptions of the latter. In this he is materially assisted by Gerald King’s lighting and Christian Barry’s sound design. 

Mbulelo Grootboom in Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

 The charged chemistry of Grootboom and Power as Philani and Sarah makes for two scenes that are among the most memorable and moving of the production. In the first, their attraction becomes dance. Later, as Philani retreats into a dark depression, the tension between them erupts into a wrenching physical struggle for a chair. Power’s beautiful performance charts Sarah’s gradual emergence from the carapace of the tentative and fearful into moments of rapture — and beyond.

Nebulane turns frustration and rage into a kind of physical electricity. And McGrath, assigned a character less realized by the play, is nonetheless always convincing as Libby.

Michael’s obstructionism and truculence is crucial to the plot; everything relies on it. But I have to admit I never did really understand why a genetics professor who speaks to the unified origins of mankind in Africa, is so dead set against revealing his own personal connection to that thought. I guess that’s the good ol’ Canadian theatre embedded in Ubuntu: there has to be a family secret and it has to be pried out of characters gradually, over time, kicking and screaming. Having said that, I must add that Jansen commits himself gamely.

In any case, Michael gets to say something to another character that resonates powerfully. It’s something you take out of the theatre and keep in your pocket for later: “You belong to a lot of people. Don’t make that a bad thing….”

Belonging to a common humanity is what Ubuntu, both in the making and performing, is all about. In that, it’s vivid, it’s startling, and it’s eloquent. 

REVIEW

Ubuntu: The Cape Town Project

Theatre: Citadel/ Prairie Theatre Exchange

Created by: D. Cloran, M. Grootboom, D. Hay, D. Jansen, H. Lewis, M. Monteith, A. Nebulane

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

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

Running: through Oct. 22

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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