This is Part 1 of our materials on the production of Spirit Songs (click here for Part 2).
Spirit Songs, the result of a collaboration between Magnet Theatre’s Culture Gangs Programme, the International Theatre and Literacy Project and iThemba Labantu Lutheran Community Centre, is a powerful production that explores what it means to be growing up in contemporary South Africa.
Stephen DiMenna, who co-directed the piece with Chesray Dolpha, explained that “We performed it originally at Philippi, at the iThemba Labantu [Lutheran Community] Centre. And then at the Magnet Theatre, where all the parents [of the cast] were brought in to see [it], and then here today [at the ASSITEJ Cradle of Creativity].”
The play is described as a ‘collage’, drawing upon the writing of 50 youth participants from Project Playground, iThemba Labantu Lutheran Community Centre, Chris Hani High School and Sibelius High School in Cape Town. Exploring their heroes, hopes, fears, dreams and aspirations, the production is a gripping call to action to make a better South African future.
Fusing the monologues and poetry with song and dance, the 35 young people in the cast are clearly very passionate about the message conveyed in the piece. “What we would like our audience to take home is the question of our heroes,” explained a cast member. “Where are our heroes? Our heroes are us! Our heroes are you! If you are still alive, you are still the hero, you are still the hero of the country, of the nation. That is what we want the audience to take away.
This message was certainly very well conveyed. One audience member commented, “It was so wonderful what you were talking about and telling us [in the show]”, whilst another remarked, “That was a beautiful show. It’s so good to see young kids under 18 facing their communities and talking about how they feel”.
To get more of a sense of the production, listen here to some of the music and text highlights (12 minutes):
Explaining how the piece had been devised, DiMenna recollected, “We came here first in 2012. Two of us. And we worked with kids from iThemba Labantu [Lutheran Community Centre] and Chris Hani High School in Khayelitsha.” They then created Spirit Songs “last summer (well your winter, our summer) over a period of 2 weeks in workshops. And then when we were invited to be in the festival […] We worked with them on this play, for this festival, for 5 days, re-rehearsing it”.
A cast member recalled that, “We were told to write pieces based on freedom, on how we feel about the youth of today. So […] as an individual you had to write something that has to do with freedom, or that has to do with heroes […] something to do with our nation, the way we see it. So we had to sit down and think. It was not an easy job. We had to sit down and think, we had to observe everything so that we could come up with a solid idea.” A fellow cast member asserted that, “for me […] there are so many stories to tell” whilst another admitted that, “for me, it wasn’t easy: actually to express myself in my writing […] I felt uncomfortable but, at the end of the day, I had to get comfortable with it and […] I also gained confidence and knowledge.”
Combining the writing together was no easy task either. “We deal with different societal ills,” someone else explained, “as much as we all look like black kids, we come from different areas and our surroundings influence us differently. So it’s not like one scoop works for everyone.” “We had to combine different pieces because we have different identities”, another participant agreed, “it wasn’t easy for us but the link was there.”
On devising the musical elements of the production, DiMenna recollected how the participants were largely self-sufficient. “I said to them one day, ‘we should have a song at the opening’ […] And the boys huddled together on one side of the room, and the girls huddled on the other and, in perfect harmony, they created a song [there and then] based on the title of the show […] And so, we usually say to them, ‘we need a song here’. And the kids, they just sort of huddle together and go, ‘well this should be in here. So, we’ll sing this hymn that we know’ or, ‘this should be a freedom song’.”
The feedback from all of those involved in the production was tremendous. Cast members described how they felt “amazing”, “so awesome to have [the] opportunity to do this thing”, “so great that I have the opportunity […] to present myself, and what I love, in front of you beautiful people.” “The work that we created is all of ours as a team”, explained someone else, whilst DiMenna commended the young participants by asserting, “There’s something in the soil that just makes them the most talented young people we’ve ever worked with.” “We would like it to [be] perform[ed] in the community more and […] we’re working very hard to find places for them to perform in the community”, he finished.
DiMenna and Chesray Dolpha directed the production, assisted by Magnet Theatre’s Culture Gangs facilitators Yonela Sithela, Zukisane Nongogo, and Maggi Fernando. The piece was choreographed by Mbovu Malinga.
Click here for Part 2 of our materials on the production of Spirit Songs.
© Dialogue Community Performance / Magnet Theatre