Saturday, 7 April 2007

Shirley, Goodness and Mercy: the play

This piece of theatre - on at the Johannesburg's Market Theatre until 13 May 2007 - captures a good deal of the essence of Chris van Wyk's book, Shirley Goodness and Mercy: a childhood memoir. Directed by Janice Honeyman, the play not only communicates effectively the sounds, sights, flavours and smells in the book, it also provides many delightful excerpts from the well-written text itself. Such extensive word-for-word rendition gives the play particular strength since a salient feature of Van Wyk's book is his wry, witty (some would say sly) and often hilarious turn of phrase.

The play does not fully or always capture the depth of the book itself, and in instances appears to miss the meaning of Van Wyk's reflections as conveyed in the memoir. In addition, there is miserly coverage of the older Van Wyk, as he positions himself in the world in a way that is rich in insights and perceptions which in turn throw light on how South Africans generally manage the complexity and contradictions of change. (Of course, some of the differences may be seen as to-be-expected consequences of translating text to a different medium. Others appear, however, to be directorial choices). Nevertheless the work still has many strengths. The play does not romanticize the community or the responses of the poor to their circumstances but depicts life in coloured townships warts and all. It portrays the growing pains of a boy who delights in the love and caring of his mother, closely studies the quirks of family members and neighbours, asks too many questions and frequently spices it all up by self-deprecating recollections of several of his own escapades.

The telling of the story is richly textured, joyous, vibrant and filled with mirth; it is through such telling, and only indirectly, that we learn about a community's resilience through difficult and confusing times. As the play ends, there is - powerfully so - no easy resolution to social challenges, including aspects such as poverty, widespread parochialism, discriminatory attitudes and confusion around identity. Many questions remain about the future for families and the community depicted, but one is left with the distinct impression that story-telling, neighbourliness and a distinctive vibrancy will extend well into the future as people of such communities continue to strive to better their lives.

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