By Edward Tsumele

I know it does not have to be this way under normal circumstances.

But these are not normal times and innovative measures are desperately needed. It started off a few weeks ago with actor Luyanda Vonqo, casually, but excitedly telling me about this new show that he is involved with, which would soon tour Gauteng venues for performances.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I immediately got interested in finding out more about this touring show during these uncertain and difficult times of Covid-19 and its restrictions.

It turns out that the imaginative producers of The Saints, amidst these difficulties affecting particularly organising live shows, have found a new innovative way of putting up shows that make commercial sense and are safe at the same time.

The producers of the play are innovatively taking it into non-conventional venues, such as restaurants where a ticket price also includes a meal.
This clearly must rate as one of the ways that perhaps point to new ways of putting up shows despite the difficult and restrictive situation of the pandemic to make a profit.

The Saints, set in a prison, is happening under different circumstances this time around, and not where it is originally set, which is the beginning of South Africa’s journey from an oppressive regime into democracy.

The country, if you like, at that time was coming out of the prison of apartheid oppression into a freedom.

But now ironically, the play is taking place in the context of another prison that society finds itself in, and that prison is the one created by the Covid-19 global pandemic, where our lives are defined by the behaviour and moods of a tiny but dangerous virus, whose strike can be fatal.

The Saints is a quintessential play written by Maswabi Legwale, set in a maximum-security prison at the beginning stages of a new democratic South Africa.

Chief Warden Mzolo has created an isolated cell block, Gore Level, for a collective of nine distinguishable prisoners, each a career criminal who has gained infamy within the prison for their crimes and intelligence, of course gone wrong.

The dynamics and mindset of the inmates change when a political prisoner, Kaofela, is introduced into the collective. The collective becomes more conscious of the South African struggle and the general human struggle against oppression and self-oppression, through Kaofela.

The power dynamics at Gore Level begin to shift and create fertile ground for a tragic and unexpected twist involving murder and betrayal.

Director, Hlengiwe Lushaba Madlala, says: “What a beautiful irony that this play, The Saints, should find us 21 years after its first staging, at a time when humanity is consciously pleading with its saints for life. We gather again in Soweto at the birthplace of The Saints while South Africa is under lockdown and could be likened to Gore Level, the prison where the play is set.

“Just like Kaofela offers redemption and hope to his fellow cellmates, I have found this process to be just that. Imagining a gathering of more than 20 artists eager to see a play or any kind of work being staged, is next to impossible and here we are doing it – thanks to Grace and Ntate Maswabi our saint who dreamed it possible more than 21years ago.

“For me, The Saints speaks to spirits/umoya, our lifeline, a space that cannot be seen but felt, a space of faith that fortifies our bodies and breathes through new and better possibilities. A space that wakes us up to ourselves and a space much needed at a time when breathing is a miracle,” said Hlengiwe.

The Saints has become a tool for us to collectively reimagine and recommit ourselves, as artists and creators. It has become a gathering point where we can once again dream. What a privilege it is to dream yet again with other dreamers, especially at this time.

As we speak to time and the consciousness of our nation, we also directly speak to ourselves. This is our church and together with The Saints we hope to be counted among those who chose to live and create even when faced with adversity.”

The play will be showcased for six months in locations in and around Gauteng with the focus on disadvantaged and previously disadvantaged communities.

The showcases will take place in key leisure and tourism venues in a Pop Art format, thus taking theatre to the community and developing new audiences.

Featuring some of the greatest talents both on TV and on stage, it will be interesting to see how this innovative, improvisation and experimentation turn out.

Theatre is currently facing an unpractical situation whereby the number of audiences allowed must not exceed 50 people as per lockdown regulations, effectively making staging a production unprofitable.

Because of these current restrictions, artists are up in arms, calling on authorities to find a ‘nuanced’ way of allowing theatres to increase numbers in venues without compromising the safety of attendees and cast.

Currently, there is a campaign started by Theatre and Dance Alliance (TADA), calling on government to relax the rules for the theatre sector that has suffered the brunt of Covid-19 lockdowns, resulting in many people in the sector unemployed for extended periods of time.

On August 30, a group of artists marched to Luthuli House, the Head Office of the ruling ANC in central Joburg, to demand that the government open theatres for more audiences.

A number of independent theatre venues that do not get a government subsidy have closed down during the lockdown in the past 18 months, including The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town. Theatre on the Square at Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, north of Joburg, was saved from closing its doors by adopting the crowd funding model, and is now planning to reopen its doors through the goodwill of donors.

The Saints boasts a strong cast of prominent actors who have made their mark on stage and TV over the years.
• Phakamani Zikalala, who plays Mancani, is a seasoned actor and has played roles such as Chonco on Isibaya and in a lot of commercials, film and other TV shows.
• The founder of Shake Off the Rust Workshops, Monareng, plays Lephoi, and is also the Executive Producer of The Saints. He has had roles in Generations, Isthembiso and Society, among others.
• Buntu Tembani, who plays Mzolo, has also appeared on a number of films on Mzansi Magic.
• Thulani Kubheka, who plays Bra Spacer, appeared in Generations, Isidingo and a number of other TV shows and films.
• Luyanda Vonqo, who plays Kodu, has had a number of notable roles and appearances on local SABC films and commercials, including South Africa’s very own acclaimed soapie Generations. An alumnus of the world-renowned Market Theatre Laboratory, he also has commendable stage credit.
• Vusi Ndlazi, who plays Kaofela, has also acted on Isthembiso, in addition to other roles across TV, film and stage.
• Thabang Dingatha is Gorman. He is also a seasoned choreographer, stage and TV actor. His recent roles include for Moja Love’s drama called Accused.
• Siphelele Mshubi who plays The Cat, has also appeared on SABC shows, in addition to commercials, TV and film acting roles.
• Lebo Maphela plays Mgarandi and is the producer of The Saints. The only female member of the cast, she is making her comeback in the arts after taking a break, after having performed internationally, doing music, dance, mainstream theatre, children’s theatre and a number of development work in the arts.
• Letona Ntombela who plays Thintha, and is the youngest member of the cast, has film, and other theatre credits behind his name. –

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