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Neo cuts chains of convention

By Sbusiso Shongwe | 2012-05-04 08:33:22.0

Soweto-bred lad deals with changing gender roles using a hybrid of township theatre and Zulu dance, with a foreign musical touch

NEO Muyanga is a stubborn and fearless artist whose artistic vision for storytelling refuses to be inhibited by the confinement of popular beliefs.

This is evident in his musical, The Flower of Shembe, currently on at the Artscape in Cape Town.

The Soweto-bred lad has composed a hybrid of township theatre and Zulu dance, with a foreign musical touch that enables all audiences from various walks of life to access, interpret and enjoy it.

He terms it an operetta because of the very same reason that it is not a typical play.

But he had to earn the trust of all the people involved to be able to tell the story of a messiah who was seen as a "God" walking the earth.

"I have always been fascinated by the idea of a 'God' living among us on earth. But it goes further than just Shembe of the Shembe denomination. My research took me as far as to understand what it is to be a Buddhist, to be a Mithra or to belong to Ethiopian Yared, but I found that all these religious people had one thing in common, and that is purity. They wanted to achieve oneness. But that is not something easy to achieve by putting together 'just a play', and doing it alone," said Muyanga.

The Flower of Shembe is not an easy musical to categorise. One has to dissect the elements informing the operetta to appreciate its aesthetic.

The dance is a language in itself. It tells about the joy and sadness of a people. By employing different equipment, like the guitar, piano, violin and other instruments, the music is an elaboration to those who are uninitiated in both Zulu and township dance or the vernacular.

"The trust that one has, when you have an intention, is what made this work possible. The casts are trained in various crafts, some are only actors while others are trained as dancers, and to expect them to excel in both crafts equally without trusting them is not being open to them," Muyanga said.

The play employs a narrative technique to show that even though men are still dominant, women are negotiating their presence, and this shift in mentality is clear in the musical.

Chuma Sopotela, a dancer, actress and puppeteer, portrays the king's woman, who believes that the role of a woman is not limited to bearing heirs - her voice needs to be heard as well.

"The dynamics of power is shifting, we are moving from that past. The notion has changed for the better for both genders. There is flexibility and as women we are questioning and approaching things differently," she said.

Though the king is reluctant to share his power with anyone, let alone seek the opinion of a woman, achieving oneness proves futile without the help of his community.