31/07/2017 12:49 SAST | Updated 31/07/2017 18:42 SAST

'Marikana -- The Musical' Is Superb But Audiences Are Laughing When They Really Shouldn't Be

An incredibly moving scene had to be cut because audiences laughed.

Making a musical about one of the most shocking tragedies in South Africa's recent history seems like a dubious decision. After all, we usually associate musicals with camp, glitz and pantomime. But the idea that a musical is always an upbeat affair is actually a misnomer – they can also be tragedies.

If you watch the play, you'll realise that putting it into this form might be one of the only ways to tell the story – with struggle songs, lamentations, protest chants and traditional music, the play memorialises the event we know so well.

In terms of production and theatrical technique, "Marikana – The Musical" is superb, which is perhaps why it was nominated for 13 Naledi Theatre Awards in 2015, and won five of them. But there are some things that feel uncomfortable.

'Marikana -- The Musical' Is Superb But Audiences Are Laughing When They Really Shouldn't

The merchandise for the play includes branded caps and T-shirts, as well as green blankets with "Marikana The Musical" embroidery. The green blanket is, of course, in reference to Mgcineni "Mambush" Noki, who was photographed wearing it over his shoulders before his tragic death. It seems strange to turn this loaded item into a piece of merchandise.

I asked playwright and director Aubrey Sekhabi where the money made from selling the merchandise went.

"It's break-even situation, there's no profit. It's for memories. It's for people to take home and think about. In terms of honouring and remembering and playing a part in this whole Marikana tragedy – that's the part that we are playing. It's something that really captures the memory of these people in whichever way possible. One could ask the same of the play. Do you think that, by doing the play and charging people at the door, it is right? But it's our contribution to the victims' memories."

Sekhabi based the production – now in its third run at the State Theatre – on the book We are Going to Kill Each Other Today – The Marikana Story by Felix Dlangamandla, Thanduxolo Jika, Lucas Ledwaba, Sebabatso Mosamo, Athandiwe Saba and City Press' Leon Sadiki.

There's a certain amount of risk involved when creating a play funded by the department of arts and culture that is about a tragedy that was effectively perpetrated by the state.

I asked Sekhabi if he felt any pressure to make the production palatable.

"No. As a playwright, I wanted to write the story as I understand the book. I don't practise self-censorship."

It's something I kept thinking about during the staging of the actual shooting. In the play, the mowing down of the mine workers is shown, but the way they were subsequently chased into the koppies and shot, sometimes execution style, by the cops, was not included.

I thought it an omission, a choice that diluted the extent of the tragedy, and asked Sekhabi about it.

"In the original play, I did include that part. But the audience kept on laughing – it bothered me so much."

In the original, the actors would run into the audience as the police shot at them.

"The audience was laughing every time we experimented with that. I finally cut that scene and included the line: 'They shot him while he was unarmed.'"

Audience responses, especially on big opening nights, can be unpredictable.

At one point in the play, there's a scene where the mine workers turn their backs to the audience and strip down to apply muti to their bodies. As they take off their overalls, the crowd erupts into whistles and cheers, turning the solemn scene into a Full Monty pantomime.

'Marikana -- The Musical' Is Superb But Audiences Are Laughing When They Really Shouldn't

Nevertheless, it is audience support that has been the most gratifying for Sekhabi.

"A lot of our people are supporting it. They come here, they cry, they engage with it, they speak about it, which is very important for me. It's living history for us, and it had to be immortalised."

While the play has a large male cast, Sekhabi focused strongly on the mine workers' widows and women's roles in the protest.

At one point, an actress recites a line that one of the Marikana widows said at her husband's funeral: "I do not blame anybody. The anger that I feel is from the pain in my heart."

I ask Sekhabi if he thought anyone was to blame for the massacre.

"When I sit here outside, I'm angry at the police. They were our people. I think the police should have used rubber bullets."

And, of course, there was Lonmin.

"Lonmin never came to the party. We open the play with one of our more political songs: 'All the way from our villages, to pick up the riches from our motherland, for the benefit of foreign scavengers. Just like yesterday, the past refuses to die.'"

The play ends with a footnote projected on the screen.

"After Marikana, most mine workers went back to work. For most of them, their quality of life wasn't different from before the strike."

'Marikana -- The Musical' Is Superb But Audiences Are Laughing When They Really Shouldn't

Marikana – The Musical details:
Venue:SA State Theatre, Pretoria
Runs until 12 August
R100 at computicket.com

This story originally appeared in City Press #Trending.

City Press