(Published - 9 July 2019)
It takes a lot to win a Standard Bank Ovation Award: courage, artistic innovation, performance excellence and a powerful message. The Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) production of Warona, performed by Ukwanda Puppetry and Design Collective, has all that and more - so it’s no surprise that they received a prestigious Silver Award at the 2019 Makhanda Arts Festival.
“We congratulate the team of directors, trainers, both in South Africa and London, our partners in Handspring Puppet Company and colleagues in the CHR for the support in making this wonderful achievement possible,” says Prof Premesh Lalu, Director of the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. “Their inspiring work opens up new possibilities for exploring - and expressing - what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.”
Warona is a play that tackles questions of street justice, community responses to drug culture in the Western Cape, and the alternative pathways families seek to create for the next generation in the face of these challenges. And it does it with puppets.
“Puppets have for many years been key in the lessons about humanity, vulnerability and complexity,” says Prof Jane Taylor, Andrew W. Mellon Chair of Aesthetic Theory and Material Performance at the CHR. “At the same time, psychology has found puppets an infinitely complex medium through which human beings can act out their own story through a medium that acts ‘on their behalf’ so to speak. This is particularly meaningful with children and young adults.”
It’s suitable then that the play was first performed at schools across the Cape Flats, warning learners of the social and personal dangers of drug abuse.
“Here, puppetry is particularly productive, as the principles of puppetry are so intriguing that the young people forget that they are being ‘taught a moral lesson’ as they watch the saga of a young puppet whose legs leave her puppet body when she is experimenting with drugs – somehow the astonishing scene captures more than any ‘moral lesson’ could communicate.”
Launched in 2010, the Awards recognise innovative and cutting-edge productions at the Fringe programme of the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown. Winners are selected by a jury of critics, writers, journalists, academics and theatre makers from hundreds of plays on the Fringe. Winning an Ovation Award is considered an important mark of quality work, and the accolade represents a pathway from the Fringe to the Arena programme of the Festival.
“Warona Director Thando Doni and actors and puppeteers Sipho Ngxola, Luyanda Nogodlwana, Siphokazi Mpofu, Sipho Mahlatshana, Asanda Rilityana and Mandiseli Maseti have mesmerised audiences in their exploration of vital questions whilst also igniting emotion and contemplation in a communal celebration of the possibilities of life, shared dreams and hope,” says Prof Lalu.
The Ukwanda team are funded through the NRF Flagship and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The production is the first one developed as part of the Greatmore Street initiative.
The Possibilities Of Puppetry: Humanity Through A Different Lens
A total of nine CHR-artists-in-residence have received national awards in 2019 - and uKwanda, the Puppetry Collective, are having a particularly dynamic and productive year.
“Puppetry arts have made significant advances in the past twenty years – in no small part because of the massive global impact of the artistry of Cape Town’s own Handspring Puppet Company, our longtime partners and collaborator-scholars,” says Prof Taylor.
“At the same time, puppetry has come into its own because of the changes we experience now, as our species is more and more integrated with technologies, and in particular prosthetic body parts and extensions of our minds.”
In March, uKwanda performed with large rhino puppets at the Cape Town International Convention Centre; and in April, with several large puppets at the African Fashion International in Cape Town. In August they will be performing their play from last year’s Barrydale Parade - a play about the endangered endemic ‘redfin’ minnow that lives in the Barrydale river that runs through that village.
uKwanda are currently developing a project about water scarcity with the city of Augsburg which has the most ancient urban water system in Europe, and they have been engaging in research, project development, as well as advanced performance and design enhancement.
Siphokazi Mpofu and Sipho Ngxola also participated in the globally renowned Curious School of Puppetry in London, and Luyanda Nogodlwana, the company’s main designer, attended the Design Indaba in Cape Town.
Their work is part of a long and proud tradition.
“The relationship between the organic and the technical - what we might think of us puppetry - has been with our species for millennia,” Prof Taylor explains. “In some ways the human being has always been in a particular relationship with technology – the bow and arrow, cultivated seeds, fire.”
This relationship has accelerated with the exponential growth of technology in recent years.
“Perhaps it is accurate to say now that the human being is part technology,” says Prof Taylor. “Work in puppetry arts helps us to understand the complex psychology, philosophy and artistry of these new ways in which we live.”