Reviews The Absurdity of a Country Devouring Itself

The Absurdity of a Country Devouring Itself

Return of the Ancestors is not what you expect it to be. The way the show is billed in the programme – as the journey of Steve Biko and Neil Aggett, who have been sent to return to South Africa to decide if their sacrifice was worth it – conjures up images of a play that is essentially a conversation between the two men as they look upon the lay of the land, with a kind judgment that is only possible with the benefit of hindsight. I suspect that this is what has turned other people off from seeing it and why the theatre was half-empty when I arrived for a viewing.

Return of the Ancestors, performed at the 2015 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. The show, featuring Mandisi Sindo and Siya Sikawuthi, brought political struggle ancestors Steve Biko and Neil Aggett back tot eh future to see if their efforts were all worth it in the end. (Photo: CuePix/ sithasolwazi Kentane)

Return of the Ancestors, performed at the 2015 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. The show, featuring Mandisi Sindo and Siya Sikawuthi, brought political struggle ancestors Steve Biko and Neil Aggett back tot eh future to see if their efforts were all worth it in the end.
(Photo: CuePix/ sithasolwazi Kentane)

The play is actually astonishing, mostly because it is so light yet affective. Playwright Mike van Graan has deployed the familiar tactic of two men playing multiple characters in new and innovative ways. The dialogue is authentic, which is a feat considering the sheer range of characters in the production, from a tombstone and a dog to a security guard and two visiting migrants.

Return of the Ancestors does a wonderful job of bringing to life conversations that are uncomfortable or usually reserved for spaces behind closed doors, when we are with our family and friends. Like what do new lyrich blacks fear about living in South Africa, or what are the hopes and dreams of an old woman living on the margins of our system?

For most of the play, Biko and Aggett are actually absent, and the audience takes their place as observers of this democracy and what it looks like for different people. The transitions in the play as we jump from scene to scene are smooth and are aided by song.

Actors Mandisi Sindo and Siya Sikawuti bring energy to the production that makes it infectious from the onset. Once they have you, they never let go. In terms of the production values of the show– it’s rather simple. That is part of the pleasure, though, because there are no gimmicks to distract or take you away from the stories that are being told.

Van Graan is a writer who understands the importance of clarity and the use of humour as a tool for social commentary. There is a kind of moving simplicity in this play. It is not weighed down by political grandstanding or the need to assert a particular message. Return of the Ancestors merely brings us unbearably close to the absurdity of living in a country that in many ways is devouring itself.

Sihle Mthembu
Cue Specialist Writer

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