Maverick Life

VOGUE-OPERA

‘If Hamilton and RuPaul’s Drag Race had a baby in South Africa’ — icon Simon Nkoli gets the glamour treatment

‘If Hamilton and RuPaul’s Drag Race had a baby in South Africa’ — icon Simon Nkoli gets the glamour treatment
The cast perform in 'Nkoli: The Vogue-Opera'. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Dubbed a ‘vogue-opera’, a production honouring the gay rights activist features dance battles and style wars in different runway categories as part of the irrepressible ball culture. Don’t miss its short run in Joburg.

Nkoli: The Vogue-Opera is about the life and trials of Simon Nkoli, a gay anti-apartheid freedom fighter who was imprisoned for four years in the famous Delmas Treason Trial (1985-1988).

Nkoli was at the forefront of the queer liberation movement in South Africa. Four years ahead of Nelson Mandela’s presidency and South Africa’s first democratic elections, he led the first gay pride march in Africa. If it wasn’t for campaigns that queers-in-arms such as Nkoli, Justice Edwin Cameron, Phumi Mtetwa, Bev Ditse and Zackie Achmat formed and led, South Africa would not have been the first country in the world to explicitly recognise “sexual orientation” as a ground for protection from unfair discrimination in its equality clause.

Tragically, Nkoli died of Aids on 30 November 1998, seven years before access to antiretroviral medicines became widely available in South Africa.

But his death acted as a catalyst for Aids activist Achmat to call for a Treatment Action Campaign, which was formed weeks later. Inspired by Nkoli, it developed into a movement that has saved millions of lives. 

Story of an icon

Despite the fact that Nkoli is a South African icon, many people still don’t know his story. Nkoli: The Vogue-Opera changes this. According to its co-producer Harriet Perlman: “Never before in South Africa has a vogue-opera quite like this been imagined. It talks to both opera fans and those who have never been to an opera but regularly attend vogueing nights, balls and drag clubs.

“The production is highly contemporary in feel with a mix of rap, opera, protest songs, lip-syncing and archival audio clips.”

Co-lyricist S’bo Gyre sums it up: “Nkoli: The Vogue-Opera is as fierce and fabulous as Simon was. Think if Hamilton and RuPaul’s Drag Race had a baby in South Africa. That’s Nkoli: The Vogue-Opera!”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Simon Nkoli’s fight for queer rights in South Africa is finally being celebrated – 24 years after he died

“Picture a classic fashion runway as used in black queer vogueing events,” says composer Philip Miller. “Performers walk the runway, competing in different categories, with song and dance battles. Sometimes it is playful sparring, other times it is an all-out style war. Large video projections show images of Simon Nkoli, his letters from prison, Sebokeng township and anti-apartheid protest marches.

“Each vogue category is an episode in Simon’s ‘coming-out’ journey: to his mother as a gay man; on the streets of the township to fight apartheid; to his ANC comrades in prison while on trial for treason, ‘the faggot in the docks’; to the world as the organiser of SA’s first gay pride march; to his community that he had Aids.” 

Simon Nkoli

While on trial, Simon Nkoli wrote hundreds of letters, some of them on toilet paper. (Photo: Mark Lewis. Letters and projected image courtesy of the Gala Archive)

Part opera, part vogueing-ball, Nkoli: The Vogue-Opera is created and composed by Miller, an internationally renowned composer whose recent successes include the Shaka iLembe score; his collaboration on William Kentridge’s The Head and the Load; and the Reuben T Caluza B-Side concerts with composer Tshegofatso Moeng.

The show has a cast of more than 26 top singers, dancers, voguers and musicians and is directed by the award-winning international UK director and screenwriter Rikki Beadle-Blair (known for Noah’s Arc and Stonewall).

“I have always wanted to work at the Market Theatre, home of protest theatre in South Africa,” says Beadle-Blair.

“Simon loved glamour, and so we can’t think of a better way to tell his story, to combine his story with vogue-ball culture, which is a celebration of possibility, defiance, activism, dance, glamour and escapism.”

Subverting the stage

Nkoli: The Vogue-Opera has taken four years to create. In 2022 I had the privilege of attending a performance after its composer, writers, dancers, musicians and producers had spent 10 days in a creative workshop, breathing it into life. I was blown away then.

I wrote: “It felt to me like an opera-in-waiting that’s destined to subvert the stage… Honestly, it could only be made in cruel, crazy beautiful South Africa.

“It’s South Africa’s own The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; an Opera (with a capital O) about the exuberant struggle for personal and political freedom of a black, poor, gay, HIV-positive young man from Sebokeng who made such a difference to millions of lives.

“So laden with meanings. So vibrant. One day it should make Broadway.”

I still expect it to make it to Broadway. But great journeys require a first outing (pun intended), and you have a chance to be there when it hits the stage. DM

Nkoli: The Vogue-Opera runs from 17 to 19 November at the Market Theatre. Tickets from Webtickets. Use the hashtag #NkoliVogueOpera to stay updated on social media or follow @NkoliVogueOpera

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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