Theatre Heremanje is inspiring the children

Heremanje is inspiring the children

South Africa is in a very tumultuous place right now. With this in mind, I went on a hunt to find inspirational tales from the Festival, especially the theatre programme. This is a story of inspiration. It begins with an African tale retold to me by renowned actor Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi and his business partner Luke Brown at Oatland’s Primary School 15 minutes before their children’s show, The Incredible Journey. It goes like this.

A son once asked his dad, “Tata how can I be successful in life?” The dad kept quiet, then responded: “Come let’s go down to the river.” They both jump into the water. The father holds his son under the water. The son is incredulous; he can’t believe his father would do this as he struggles to breathe. He fights, bites and scratches his father, eventually breaching the surface. “Dad what are you doing?” His father replies, “If you can use the power of this fight that you had under water in everything you do, then you will be successful.”

This is the kind of African folktale that all art and theatre-makers should never forget. Making art has never been easy, and complaining doesn’t get the job done. You need to fight to survive. This is exactly what Brown and Mkhwanazi, who founded Heremanje, a multi-award winning production company, have been doing.

They have brought four shows to Grahamstown this year: Undermined and The Incredible Journey (both directed by Tara Notcutt), as well as Home (directed by Luke Brown) and A Man and A Dog (directed by Penny Youngelson). All four shows have won Ovation Awards. “As a young company we feel really blessed that I work is being recognised here,” says Brown. “Nhlanhla was my lecturer at AFDA University. We had one class with him a week and I had some advertising in my car for a show I was doing at Kalk Bay Theatre. It was one of those were I had to pay my way through University, and I refused to do anything but the arts so I never had any breaks.” Adds Brown: “He saw the advertising of my show and approached me in the parking lot and said he enjoyed the work that I was doing. So he wanted to talk to me about doing a show. From there he told me the whole story of Undermined and after that we approached Simon Cooper. We had another show, Memory, which won an Ovation here last year and was a story that Nhlantla had, which was written by Nicholas Ellenbogen of Theatre For Africa. Nhlanhla created the whole piece.”

Memory was performed at The White House Theatre and Plett Fringe Festival. “Undermined was getting started and we thought, ‘Wait a minute, here is a formula that works’, so we started with two other ladies, and now it’s just the two of us,” says Brown. In almost two years the company has gone from unknown to being a prominent feature at NAF 2015. Undermined returns for a second year, and is still packing out Princess Alice Hall, while A Man and Dog and The Incredible Journey have won Ovation Awards during their first run of 2015. Brown and Mkhwanazi have definitely set a great example for young theatre companies beginning to create a name for themselves in an oversaturated Festival.

“It’s been two years now and we’ve got four Ovations of five for our shows. We’ve travelled around the world with our work; we’ve gone to Australia and all around South Africa,” says Brown. What then is this formula that these artists have found that could help other young companies find their feet? Brown puts it down to five main necessities when running a successful theatre company: Preparation, research, planning, finding the right people and understanding the business of theatre. “I’ve been told no so many times, but I didn’t take no as an answer. You hear people at awards shows saying, ‘Don’t give up on your dreams, you’ve got to work on it every single day.’ It’s the truth,” says Brown.

Perhaps it’s time for theatre-makers to begin using the same African folktales for inspiration for the successful running of their theatre businesses. Take it to heart.

Siya Ngcobo
Cue Contributing Editor

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