From the days of Ipi Tombi to, most recently, Umoja and The Mysteries, there's been an anguished liberal undercurrent to the way South African musicals have been received in Britain. Isn't there an uncomfortable irony, we sometimes think, that these winning, energetic displays of black culture and performance skills are dramatically and commercially owned and propelled by white people?
That might be more problematic still with a show such as iMumbo Jumbo, which consistently contrasts the tribal spirituality of the amaXhosa people of the Transkei not just with the ways of the Old World, but also with the new multi-racial republic's infatuation with modernity. In the event, though, there's not a trace of condescension or appropriation in writer/director/designer Brett Bailey's work; after living and studying with Xhosa shamans, he has unreservedly "gone native".
This isn't a crafted showcase of exotica, but a slightly ramshackle amalgamation of the sincere and the parodic, the genuine and the surreal. Most bizarre of all is the story, which turns out to be quite true: in 1996 Chief Nicholas Tilana Gcaleka followed a dream-vision to London (his air ticket paid for by Coca-Cola and South African Breweries) to retrieve the skull of his ancestor King Hinstsa, killed by the British in 1836. Gcaleka, with a Sky TV crew in tow, tracked down his skull near Inverness... only to have it seized on his return home by government ethnologists, who declared it to be that of a Caucasian woman.
Bailey's Third World Bunfight company incorporate a raft of songs from traditional and gospel almost all the way to township jive. Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II make brief caricature appearances. A narrator explains to us the points the show is making, and also that the main thing is enjoyment; "I'm going to give you brandy and Smirnoff, all the things to make you happy," he says, and by the end of the show nips are indeed being handed round (Gcaleka was a liquor salesman as well as a visionary shaman). Two or three times he is interrupted by other members of the company who want to address us directly, and the house lights go up and down several times so that by the end even the Barbican Theatre begins to feel almost intimate. And it's the rambling and lurching that make the show work, because we're never allowed to feel that we're being presented with an engineered product, but rather simply joining in with a bit of a hooley.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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