Delela — a play that holds a mirror to our society in a most hilarious and brutal fashion
Currently enjoying a short season at The Baxter, Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni’s ‘Delela’ is a finger-on-the-pulse comedy packed with Machiavellian shenanigans. It demonstrates not only that the young playwright-director has a firm grip on her material, but insight into the underlying causes of South Africa’s social ills.
Fans of the TV series “Succession” who are perhaps missing its frequently cringe-inducing dialogue have just a few days to get something of a localised version of the same — performed live at The Baxter in Cape Town.
The play is Delela and it’s written and directed by local theatre-maker Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni. She has conjured something of a delicious potboiler out of her keen observations of South African race politics — the result is a gripping comedy. Problem is, despite being laugh-out-loud funny, it is barely a fictional account of where our nation is in its journey towards social equality.
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The premise is all too familiar: a rich white guy named Sebastian Strauss-Smith, (a beautifully restrained and in moments utterly unhinged performance by Daniel Barney Newton) who holds the reins of control over a philanthropic organisation, devises a scheme to improve his image by hiring a deputy who, because she is both black and female, will make himself look better.
And while this misfit corporate president-type — placed in power purely by virtue of being the oldest son in a line of family heirs — thinks himself virtuous because he has the university credentials and the volunteer work in Rwanda to back him up, he is utterly blind to the reality of his own privilege.
In steps Letsatsi Letseka (played by a frankly hypnotic Katlego Lebogang), who is so sharp and forceful you almost can’t believe how much you instantly adore her for her guts and bravura, and for her dedication to the task of putting her new boss firmly in his place. The future is pretty much written on the wall from the moment Newton’s bigheaded boss-man botches their very first encounter — like so many in positions of assumed authority, he lacks the decency to dignify Letsatsi’s presence by even bothering to pronounce her name correctly.
In a sequence of swift and punchy exchanges, complemented by after-the-fact TV interviews, we witness Newton’s white-dope egomaniac go head-to-head with his sassy new vice-president — what’s meant to be his attempt to install a pliable black sidekick as an underling whom he can walk all over instead turns quickly against him. The reversal of fortunes is not only fun to watch, but provides the opportunity for a series of increasingly eye-opening revelations about how white people talk to — and about — black people.
Thanks to the meddling of Sebastian’s jilted, scheming sister (Frances Sholto-Douglas), and a number of provocative questions by a take-no-punches TV journalist (Fadzai Simango), what comes out in the wash is so much poorly disguised racism and blunt ignorance that you want to imagine that what you’re watching is parody. Surely this is not in fact the South Africa of our hopes and dreams, but a demented satire in which the worst of a bad bunch of despicable whites are being placed under the microscope.
Thing is, if you listen carefully, you realise that what you’re hearing is precisely the sort of rhetoric that is spewed out, again and again, in the day-to-day reality of South Africa. As much as it’s a political drama and comedy of errors rooted in Shakespearean plotting, it is also unmistakably a very honest documentation of our topsy-turvy contemporary society.
And, yes, while this is a play full of political arguments and is hellbent on having its actors flesh out the deeply engrained systemic problems that seem to prevent us from moving forward, don’t expect to sit in your seat scratching your head, feeling angry and provoked. Instead, Delela (the name means “disrespectful, cheeky, rude, out of line”) is as tantalising and entertaining as any episode of Succession. There may be fewer swears, but some of the verbal take-downs are just as awe-inspiring — the drama, in fact, reaches a point where the tension and combative force of the words is akin to watching boxers go head-to-head in the ring.
There is something deeply rewarding about being in a theatre packed with folks who are either squirming in their seats or yelling out the equivalent of “You go girl!” as Lebogang’s promising young black woman tells her white sparring partners precisely what’s what.
On the evening I saw this show, the auditorium genuinely bustled with folks calling out from their seats as they witnessed situations that they recognised from the real world. It was like watching a mirror of our society, deftly held aloft by a young playwright who understands that laughter is the best medicine and that what we need is to air our dirty laundry, get the conversations out in the open, and rip off a few plasters so that we can more respectfully and honestly engage with one another. In other words, it’s a play offering hope for the future.
In the meantime, Delela’s cast provides 90 highly engaging minutes of satisfying succour in the form of dialogue that’ll make you sit up and listen. And it’s worth hearing what these characters have to say — because I think Mashifane wa Noni has her ear to the ground, her heart in the right place, and a mind worth tapping into. Her characters are in many ways fighting for the soul of our nation, and in their virulent dialogue lurks something resembling truth. DM
Delela is currently playing in Cape Town at The Baxter’s Golden Arrow Studio – the season ends 16 September (there is 3pm matinee on Saturday). Tickets via Webtickets.