Thupa Kobong: The Repress of ‘Nothing’ at the Centre for the Less Good Idea
An artist developing a new piece of theatre can rework it and hone it endlessly on paper or in workshops. But it’s not until they try it in front of an audience that it really gels and reveals its strengths and weaknesses.
Johannesburg’s The Centre for the Less Good Idea is a space where developing or experimental works can be aired for an audience that knows not to always expect perfection. Based in the Maboneng district, the centre is a dark walk away from the main hub, and like many other art centres during the pandemic, the place is still not working at full capacity.
Which all explains why Pretoria-based writer, choreographer and performer Thabo Rapoo had only about 20 people in his audience for Thupa Kobong – The Repress of ‘Nothing’.
Rapoo has created – or is creating – an unusual piece in both English and Setswana, where he cries to the spirit of Motsamai, a homeless man who realises that he will only amount to nothing, no thing, in his lifetime.
This is a performance, not a play, taking place against an aural backdrop of grunts that are sometimes a little too loud to hear the few words Rapoo is saying.
In fact, much of his communication is through raw guttural cries as he expresses his fear or grief or madness, and when he speaks, he does so with a rich and dignified enunciation redolent of South Africa’s great actor John Kani; he also whistles, a sound that sometimes pierces the ears with sharp intensity, or intertwines to create an elaborate, albeit unusual, conversation.
At the beginning, Rapoo shakes a cup attached to a stick in front of individual audience members, dressed in a battered jacket with holes in it and a tear down the back, over a ragged shirt and trousers. The pace is slow and when his eyes meet someone in the audience, everything seems to stop – time suspended.
A few snippets of the Constitution, religious texts and proverbs are projected onto the bare wall behind him. “Everyone has the right to dignity and to have their dignity respected”, reads one: “Only the shadows can hear her cry”, says another.
There is intensity in his actions: a twitching of the hand, the saliva dribbling down his chin – and the name ‘Motsamai’ chanted as if it were rhythming the performance. The emotion is high and the plot minimal; director Phala O. Phala could have shortened some sections to heighten the intensity and retain audience interest.
And yet there is something hypnotic watching and listening to Rapoo’s struggle with his demons or his hopelessness; something so deep, personal, that it highlights the character’s very existence, beyond homelessness. Maybe this production will remind people that the homeless aren’t a homogenous group, one single block ‘to avoid’; instead, they are individuals with their own struggles and their own stories.
The Centre for the Less Good Idea was founded by William Kentridge in 2016 to nurture artists and support experimental, collaborative and cross-disciplinary endeavours, and as a safe space for projects to be tried and discarded if they don’t work.
“Often, you start with a good idea. It might seem crystal-clear at first, but when you put it to work, the cracks and fissures emerge in its surface, and they cannot be ignored. It is often the secondary ideas, those less good ideas found in trying to address the cracks in the first idea, that become the core of the work,” Kentridge explained.
As part of the Centre’s ‘For Once’ programme, Thupa Kobong – The Repress of ‘Nothing’ is slated to return for a longer run after this initial trial. While this exploratory piece might need some honing before it could appeal to a broader audience, Rapoo carries it with a magnetic and riveting stage presence. DM/ML
The Centre for the Less Good Idea is at Arts on Main at 264 Fox Street, Maboneng, Johannesburg.