The blazing success of the hip hop musical Hamilton has shown how street culture can redefine what a musical can be. Accessible, for a start, with rhythms and slang and movements that speak the language of today’s potential audiences. By LESLEY STONES.
The show about the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton is already one of Broadway’s most successful musicals, selling out every night and winning a Pulitzer Prize for drama and 11 Tony Awards.
South Africa’s version is Hani: The Legacy, a far smaller and less glitzy affair, but sharing many of the winning ingredients. It’s the story of struggle icon Chris Hani, told in intelligent rap and lively hip hop by graduates from the Market Theatre Laboratory. The students en masse are credited with its creation, with nobody given individual mentions for the excellent lyrics or music.
The vibe is instantly infectious, with exuberant breakdancing, colourful costumes, smart lyrics and a delightful sense of humour. Energy and enthusiasm aren’t enough, of course, but the performers have bundles of talent too, singing, dancing, acting and clowning around, and using their voices as beat boxes to enhance the soundtrack. All 12 get to reveal a personality of their own while still working as a cohesive unit. Hani would appreciate that.
Darlington Khoza plays Hani superbly, and not only when he’s sing-speaking his opinions and philosophies of racial and economic equality. In the moments where he stands still or walks on the spot Khoza gets a far-away look in his eyes that silently sets him apart. It’s a powerful expression that will see him add gravitas to a lot more roles in future.
Pereko Makgothi plays Limpho, Hani’s wife, and a charming courtship scene is full of tense will-she, won’t-she simmering passion while the crew adds encouraging antics in the background.
Mathews Rantsoma is lovely as Mandela, switching into the elder statesman’s familiar tones and stance, then livening it up by having Mandela rapping a powerful speech. It’s one of many moments of comedy, made funnier because you can imagine a sparkling-eyed Mandela actually doing it.
Another stand-out is Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi with his jazzy dreads. He’s all skin, bone and hidden muscles, and puts it to good use with his acrobatic and comedic contributions.
It’s brilliant – and vital – that you can hear every word of the songs because they house the story, with lyrics explaining the history and Hani’s philosophies. There’s some narration too, tinged with humour as someone steps out from the action to keep things on track.
The well-researched story (predominantly in English with smatterings of Zulu and Xhosa) is chronological, showing how aspects of Hani’s life shaped him into a liberation fighter.
We start in a poor village as his father leaves to seek work in the city. Then comes his early intention to be a priest – despite 25km to school each way, and 25km to church on Sunday.
A powerful song comes when Hani is studying Latin and literature at Fort Hare University, and rebels against the government’s plans to dumb things down by imposing Bantu education. Another moment reinforcing the motives behind his fight for equality comes when he receives his degree, but his parents are barred from the ceremony because they’re black. While the crew sings the old national anthem, Hani and his parents sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika in stirring defiance.
The rest of the songs are original, and vary from poetic rapping to more mellow moments, creating emotional light and shade.
Choreographer Teresa Phuti has devised some great routines and costume designer Keaoleboga Seodigeng dresses everyone in colourful gear, with Khoza in red jogging pants like Hani was wearing when he was assassinated in 1993. When historic footage of the murder scene is projected behind the performers it smacks you back to reality.
Director Leila Henriques has done a fabulous job in channelling all this youthful exuberance into a sharp and focused production. Henriques says the main aim was to explore what could unfold if Hani’s legacy was kept alive by today’s youth to inspire us in these gloomy days of political corruption.
That’s expressed in the finale, with lyrics calling for us to achieve the social and economic harmony that Hani fought for. After 20 years we’re still choosing between buying the next meal or a pair of shoes, they rap – albeit more eloquently than that – why can’t we have both?
If you are at all interested in South Africa’s recent history or in seeing talented youngsters doing fabulous things, get yourself a ticket. DM
Hani: The Legacy runs until January 31 in the Ramolao Makhene Theatre at 138 Lilian Ngoyi Street, across from the Market Theatre in Newtown. Tickets from Webtickets.
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