Cross-cultural production Ubuntu transcends borders

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Ubuntu at the Citadel Theatre. Photo credit: EPIC Photography.

“For the first time in human history, our paths are taking us back towards each other… we’re walking home.”

It’s a revelation that comes late in Ubuntu (The Cape Town Project), in a lecture being given by a microbiology professor, about how recently our ancestors left Africa. The statement and the play speak to border-crossing in the past and today and how interconnected we are with one another – a theme that’s at the heart of this production.

Ubuntu is Artistic Director Daryl Cloran’s second offering of the Citadel’s 2017/2018 season, a play that he holds close to his heart as a co-creator and Director. Ubuntu was created between 2005 – 2009 as a cross-cultural collaboration between Toronto’s Theatrefront (co-founded by Daryl co-founded), and Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre Centre. Together, the two companies created a play that combines equal parts of both’s theatrical styles. Catch Ubuntu at the Citadel’s Maclab Theatre until October 22.

Ubuntu bears witness to two different journeys to Canada – a father and son, separated by thirty years. Jabba, the son, on a quest to end the nightmares that plague him by finding his father (Philani), travels to a Toronto university where he encounters his father’s graduate supervisor who denies knowing Philani for reasons that are never made clear. While Jabba searches for Philani, we see flashbacks to thirty years prior, when Philani is pursuing a graduate degree in microbiology and meets the love of his life, Sarah. Flash forward thirty years, and Sarah has died and her grieving daughter decides to help Jabba find his father, not anticipating the complexities Jabba’s journey of discovery will unravel.

A true cross-cultural collaboration, about 20 minutes of the 95 minute Ubuntu are delivered in Xhosa, one of South Africa’s official languages. When the play starts off primarily in Xhosa, it becomes a little overwhelming to non-Xhosa speakers, but in paying attention to tone and body language, the meaning of the scenes comes across clearly. After all, it’s been said only 7% of communication comes from the words spoken. While this integration of English and Xhosa are a crucial part of the cross-cultural collaboration that birthed Ubuntu, it’s also a core expression of one of Daryl Cloran’s stated objectives as the Artistic Director of the Citadel: to make the theatre an inclusive and welcoming space. Having witnessed the reaction of my friend whose mother tongue is Spanish the first time we saw a bilingual English/Spanish show together, I know how powerful it is to see one’s own language on stage in a country where that’s not the norm, and hope that this play starts to show the Citadel’s doors are open.

In Xhosa, the word Ubuntu roughly translates to “a person is a person through other persons” or as is said in the play, “I am because you are”. In the play, this concept comes through most strongly in the character’s interconnectedness and through the repeated sentiment that you can’t escape your ancestors.

The interconnectedness of the characters is most clearly expressed as we watch the interactions between the characters shift their experiences. Philani’s gentle certainty helps Sarah, an anxious grad student, find her inner courage and confidence as their relationship blossoms. As Sarah, Tracey Power’s performance is visceral – physically embodying the emotional turmoil she feels so intensely that the audience can practically feel it in their own bodies. Opposite Tracey, Mbulelo Grootboom’s Philani is a calming presence on stage, but both he and Andile Nebulane as Jabba come alive during the play’s more physical moments – especially those they share. Two of my favourite scenes were when the two gumboot dance and a later fight scene.

In searching for his father, Jabba is the embodiment of the sentiment that you can’t escape your ancestors repeated in the play. Plagued by thoughts of his father, Jabba is compelled to bring him home to South Africa. During Ubuntu, we learn in the flashbacks that Philani’s ancestors have called him to be a Sangoma – or healer – and we see Philani’s conflict between science and spirituality as he studies microbiology. During Philani’s studies, his supervisor Michael tells him to disregard his South African traditions – that they’re primitive and have no place with modern science. Philani protests that his traditions are not just important to his sense of self, but complementary to his study of science. Unable to integrate the two aspects of his spirit – the science and the spirituality – Philani falls into a deep depression.

As Michael, David Jansen is the play’s villain, with his stubborn insistence on not assisting Jabba in his quest, asking his daughter Libby to do the same, and having questionable motives shown in the flashbacks to his time as Philani’s supervisor. While David played the role in a way that created intrigue about his motivations, the reasons Michael stands in Jabba’s way of learning about his father are still unclear to me. It seems like Michael would have had much more to gain by telling the truth, so providing a reason for Michael’s resistance, or removing it altogether, would have provided a more interesting way of uncovering the play’s message.

It was surprising to me that a play where Philani leaves a South Africa that is seeing the beginning of the end of apartheid, and Jabba grows up as apartheid is ending, that politics, even at the level of the individual, is not really part of Ubuntu. The choice was clearly made to focus Ubuntu on Jabba’s journey and Philani and Sarah’s love story, but having deliberately set the story to move between South Africa and Canada starting 30 years ago, leaving out those aspects of the larger environment seems like a large omission to the plot and character development.

While there were several plot holes that diminished my enjoyment of Ubuntu, including Michael’s motivations, the timeline and ages of the characters involved, and a reveal near the end of the play that would spoil the play if I discussed it here; overall, there was a lot to love about Ubuntu – the integration of the Xhosa language, the intense and stylised physicality, and the reflection on Canadian and South African cultures.

Ubuntu (The Cape Town Project) runs at the Citadel until October 22. Tickets are $25 – $75 through the Citadel’s box office.

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