The Lion and the Jewel
The Lion & The Jewel from close up
By Nantie Steyn
Sawdust landed on my lap and dotted my jacket. The vigorous dancing on the stage had me slightly nervous... one of the actors just had to slip and... but their footwork was faultless and the choreography infectious. And sitting virtually right under their feet had its secret thrills.
Look, I said to my date, when you book, remember that the seats at the back of the main theatre, next to the pillars, have Absolutely No Leg Room. No worries, he said, I'll get the best seats in the house. By the time I discovered he thought the seats right in the front, in the middle, were the best in the house, the lights were going down. I was committed, so I resigned myself, switched off my phone and got into the story. At least leg room was not going to be a problem.
We were watching James Ngcobo's version of the 1963 Wole Soyinka comedy, The Lion and the Jewel. The story, in short, is this: a famous photographer takes a picture of Sidi, the belle of a small Nigerian village called Ilunjinle. The photo appears on the cover of a magazine, bestowing on Sidi nationwide fame, if not immediate fortune. This leads to intensive vying for her hand by both the village teacher, Lakunle - a "creature damaged by books" according to James — and the village chief, Baroka, a polygamist in the finest African tradition.
The Market Theatre production features a stellar cast: Sello Maake ka-Ncube plays the ageing but virile chief (the Lion of the title) and Fezile Mpela is the gauche but idealistic Lakunle. Nthati Moshesh is certainly as beautiful as the text suggests, but it is hard, at times, to believe her as the 19-year old Sidi. The performance is slightly high-pitched, as a result, and it is not easy to relate to the character, even if one understands that she is young and bewildered.
"She is giddy," Nthati said when I asked her. "She is young, and she is flattered. Being on the cover of the magazine is a huge, huge thing. I tried not to be blasé about my take on the character, and to express instead how it just messes with her head." It was a pity, as Nthati is a talented and accomplished performer: the part does not give her room to shine.
"Soyinka called Lakunle 'an awkward creature awkward in words, in action'" says James, and Fezile Mpela is a joy to watch as the school teacher who is very much in love with Sidi, and determined to make her his wife. He wants to do so, however, contrary to the traditional rules of engagement (so to speak), by refusing to pay the "bride-price". Sidi does not get this, or his declarations of love or his kisses — she asks, "what are you doing with your mouth?" He proposes, on his knees, extravagantly calling her Bathsheba, Ruth, Esther, Rachel, adored women from the bible, a book Sidi knows nothing about.
For Sidi the bride-price is important, as it determines her status in the village. Instead, Lakunle encourages her to shake off her yoke, to marry him and love him in a modern and western context. His vigorous advocacy of progress and science leads to take himself rather too seriously and when he pronounces with conviction that women's brains are indeed smaller than those of men, it becomes impossible for the audience to do so.
The performance is engaging and funny — you want him to get the girl, in spite of the fact that he is clearly going to miss the boat.
The Lion and the Jewel is not, however, a simple retelling of the classic love-triangle story. The conflict between Lakunle and the Lion is the eternal one of progress vs. African tradition. Lakunle, as the personification of the former, makes it clear that progress is not all it is cracked up to be.
Tradition seems to get the better end of the stick. Sello brings gravitas and dignity to the part of the Bale, or Lion, and he looks pretty good with half his kit off. He seduces Sidi even though she is determined to outwit him and the status quo, when the curtain drops, is preserved. One is unsure if this is a good or a bad thing. It could be neither, or both.
The senior wife Sadiku makes a compelling case for the role women and the extent to which custom is oppressive and abusive. In spite of this, Sidi choose to marry the Lion even when Lakunle is prepared, as a modern man, to protect her honour.
"Why did you choose the play?" I asked James.
"I love directing the plays that I fall in love with on the first reading," he said. "In this country, we tend to do theatre only about our stories... I think we should engage more with other African narratives, and create a feeling of belonging in Africa."
More than this, as a "proud Zulu man" he feels that he can go home and take part in rituals that are hundreds of years old, but come back to Johannesburg and live and work in the modern world. "When I die, if I have not passed on the knowledge of our traditions to my sons, in the way that I received it from my father, then I would have failed." Tradition and progress must live side-by-side in Africa.
"I don't know if Sidi will make the same decision today... but if you think about it, what has changed?" Nthati asked me. "An African chief can still take many wives. Is this good or bad? As black women we should engage in this debate."
The play has been called "a sly and subversive comedy". It is both entertaining and thought provoking and the production at the Market is a vigorous and colourful one with a great cast. Go see it. It is on until 15 June.
ironic contrast to feminist ideals in this play
Author: u asomba, 1 November 2010
my questions remain, why would a girl marry someone a lot older than herself all because he deflowered her? could she not have followed the school teacher who would have married her at all cost?
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