DEATH OF A TRADITION
It’s not every day that a man in a shiny, gold suit welcomes you into a theatre space by handing you a cheaply printed pamphlet advertising overly-expensive funeral home policies.
Lime Light on Rights, Sello Pesa’s site-specific work, did just that however. As the Artistic Director of Johannesburg’s Ntsoana Contemporary DanceTheatre Pesa admits his inspiration for new work almost always comes from the basis of “what it means to be African”.
Originally recently created in partnership with the Goethe Institut, the piece was performed for JOMBA! to the left of the entrance to the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre on a small area of grass with a square stage at its centre. Pesa essentially sets up the patch of land outside to look like a funeral and we effectively became mourners.
I will admit that for most of the performance I was left questioning, waiting for the moment when I would finally understand just what he was attempting to say about this specific tradition. The audience endured a most crude voiceover about the Violent Femme’s and a man screaming “you do not fuck with this band” over and over, causing our audience to shrink by at least two as two women walked back up to their car.
The crudeness was at first shocking but eventually dulled into background noise, perhaps a comment on the onslaught of funeral policies we are presented with every day. The irony occurred when the tiny radio, constantly playing live feed as background noise, actually advertised funeral policies in Zulu during Pesa’s performance. We later sat through a violent hacking up of a wooden bench, suggestive of a coffin, and even the funeral rites being performed on the body of a ready-to-cook chicken, where the audience was encouraged to participate in its burial on a mattress.
Two of the performers, Humphrey Maleka and Brian Mthembu, either danced amongst a nervous audience using a mattress to writhe across the ground and in the bushes behind them, or on the stage where a series of harsh and uncomfortable movements were repeated on different planes.
It was only when Pesa himself started pushing the audience off their seats as he packed up the chairs they were sitting on that I had what I called my “lightbulb moment”. All of a sudden, everything that I’d seen during Lime Lights on Rights made sense: Pesa was showing us, through a recreation of what happens at these lavish funerals, that all the funeral home really cares about is money.
The audience were invited in as mourners but when the time was up, an insensitive cast packed up around us, even sending us back to the Sneddon with a cheeky “You can go now! Go!” by Pesa himself. I was entertained by the quirkiness they’d used to explore this matter onstage as well as the merging of dance, movement, gesture and ritual. By creating a hyper-real tradition onstage,Pesa effectively showed the part of his culture which now preys upon grieving victims as opposed to caring for them in a time of need as something he finds most repugnant. And after that performance, I felt the same way.