First published in The Times, Thursday August 13 2015
Who says you can’t make powerful drama out of two people sitting talking in a room? The action of Zoey Martinson’s Ndebele Funeral takes place entirely within the crumbling walls of a Soweto shack. Yet, the often fraught back and forth between old friends Thandi (played by Martinson herself) and Mandisi (Yusef Miller) builds a vivid, if bleak, portrait of contemporary South Africa.
When the pair met at university, their country was on the cusp of change. But neither life nor South Africa has lived up to their youthful expectations. Thandi, a once-brilliant medical student, is now dying of Aids and seeks solace in alcohol and the prospect of being laid out in a beautiful home-made coffin. Mandisi, who once dreamt of becoming a writer, now toils in a mundane job and provides for his ailing friend. Mandisi’s journey to Thandi’s shack is becoming harder due to the rise in crime. “Apartheid used to be so easy,” he says at one point. “At least you knew who your enemies were.”
Zoey Martinson and Yusef Miller
The production, from the Brooklyn-based Smoke & Mirrors collaborative, is far from perfect. Martinson’s script is not always well served by Awoye Timpo, the director, who creates a level of emotional intensity in the opening scene that proves difficult for the actors to sustain all the way to the bittersweet climax.
When the piece does find its rhythm – helped by leavening passages of gumboot dancing and close-harmony singing – Martinson’s play offers a moving and sensitive exploration of friendship surviving against a turbulent socio-political backdrop that’s refreshingly unencumbered by solemnity. The cast, which also features Jonathan David Martin as a harassed government housing inspector, really make you care about the characters and their assorted struggles and epiphanies.