Riveting drama of hard truths, self-discovery and humiliation

MADONNA OF EXCELSIOR, with Diana Maseko and Matshidiso Thinyane. Directed by Roel Twijnstra. (Transnet Great Hall, today at 11am and 4pm)

Reviewed by Brett Adkins

TORMENTED pasts, awful secrets and questions of true identity are themes which make this stage adaptation of Zakes Mda’s award-winning novel of the same name, a searing piece of drama.

It is as relevant today as ever, even though it is set between the early 1970s and ’90s.

While the play, which also has its fair share of musical content, deals with issues of the apartheid era’s hated Immorality Act, it focuses more on the brutality, sexual assault and appalling abuse against black and coloured workers and their children by white employers and co-inhabitants. And therein lies its greatest dramatic strength.

The show is peppered with soaring and robust vocals as the cast and chorus – who emerge from the audience at the outset – use song to supplement the tension.

The storyline follows Popi, a young and inhibited coloured woman from Excelsior in the Free State.

In a newly democratic South Africa, she feels she must question her roots, despite the reluctance of her mother Nikki to allow her to delve too deep.

But dig she does and slowly through a number of manifestations and means, hard-hitting and unspeakable truths emerge as the Excelsior inhabitants are forced to re-examine what really happened to them under apartheid. The work represents terrific ensemble acting with each character a credible presence as Popi – a stellar performance by Diana Maseko – begins wading through a town littered with hideous secrets, forbidden acts and hidden agendas.

The scene in which butchery workers, who are accused of stealing meat, are humiliated by being weighed on a scale before and after their shift, is powerful indeed.

It’s made all the more riveting when a young Nikki – a superb turn by Matshidiso Thinyane – is forced to strip when she fails the test.

This is a solid, probing production which, despite its central theme, is ultimately revelatory.

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