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SCENE IT: DELELA surprises with punch

Barbara Loots


After a successful premiere at the 2022 National Arts Festival, DELALA, a new South African satire that explores racial and economic privilege through vanity philanthropy, takes to the stage at the Baxter Theatre’s Golden Arrow Studio until 16 September 2023.

When I walk into a theatre and see that a director has made performers part of the preset, the production has me on the back foot already: So, the actors are 'onstage' doing 'things' which they have been told to do (so one can assume intent behind their actions), but it isn’t curtain call time yet? Such a preset approach can mean one of two things, the playwright either sees such pre-show action as part of the play (which means you effectively rob part of your audience from the full experience of the play, which could potentially set the tone for the story) or you’ve fallen prey to an overused gimmick that minimizes the impact of the reveal of the story to the audience after lights have gone down and their eager anticipation stands to be rewarded with that first scene interaction. Either way, a production with a performance element as part of the preset usually has much work to do to win me over.

DELELA is partially set in a fictional recording studio: This is where the play will unfold in response to a series of interviews and memory recall moments. As you leisurely walk into the theatre you are thus greeted with ‘crew’ busy crewing, and an eager journalist prepping for his next live recording. In this play, the preset-approach appears to be putting in place elements that would explain certain crew interactions during the course of play, which again left me feeling a bit grumpy as not all the audience would be privy to these subtle hints playing out before the play is set to start. But, much was forgiven as the play unfolded. Ultimately, I left the theatre rather happily surprised and impressed by DELELA, though I would have been more so had it not fallen into the preset action trap so many South African theatre makers cling to.

The story of DELELA mainly revolves around the interactions of Sebastian ‘Bash’ Strauss-Smith (Daniel Barney Newton), Letsatsi ‘Lee’ Letseka (Katlego Lebogang) and Stephanie ‘Apple’ Strauss-Smith (Frances Sholto-Douglas) as we meet them at the time when they are preparing to be interviewed. The set of interviews with a journalist (Fadzai Simango), is a damage control measure, after Bash made a politically insensitive comment that saw him being fired upwards in the power hierarchy thanks to dad and grandpa. They are all associated with the Strauss-Smith Foundation which the twins, Bash and Apple, are trying to rebrand by white-washing their family past with a new tagline that speaks to the “bending” of the public’s perception of their family as beneficiaries of apartheid. This they intend to do by developing window-dressing ‘projects’ under the guise of transformative justice. Their story of sibling rivalry and privilege unravels when they bring in Letsatsi Letseka, their Deputy President, as their diversity appointment.

The actual first scene reveals a satirical slant that employs traditional comedic measures to poke fun at prejudices, presuppositions and political issues. This comedic approach reveals the characters as caricatures of the people their individual stories generally represent. It solicited raucous laughter from the audience who appreciated the strong commentary being shouted at the politically tone deaf privileged component of our society through the comedy at play. Although it’s ‘fun’ to laugh at the wrongs in the world, as is our South African coping mechanism, I was sitting there wondering if this was all that DELELA was bringing to the stage.

At that instance I was momentarily left wanting for that extra layer of satirical depth that can elevate the ‘fun’ to the thought-provoking, as much was made of the title, a verb, that means “to be disrespectful, cheeky, rude, out of line”. I was longing for that roguish undertone that DELELA kept hinting at.

And then the initial comedy mask (that appeared to soften the landing of the unequal society commentary) started falling away, and DELELA started to pack the punches.

DELELA surprises you, at a very striking moment, as you realise that it lulled you into a false sense of comedic security. It embraces an intriguing mean tone and plays into the power of the verb it promises to be. It cleverly uses non-linear story telling as a device to reveal to the audience the same set of events told from the different perspectives of (arguably) unreliable witnesses. In so doing, it explores issues of nepotism, racism, and feminism, and where there is an -ism there is definitely something disrespectful and out of line that deserves the nice in the commentary-approach punched out of it. DELELA does that to great effect.

DELELA could arguably have gone even darker with the emotional tones of the play, to really explore that underbelly of privilege and prejudice already on display. The play’s target being wealthy philanthropists playing to the media to save face as they spend all that apartheid family money really does lend itself to such even harder-hitting exploration that exposes hypocrisy for further public scrutiny. Oh the political feathers that one could ruffle! I do hope Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni crafts more such brave and intelligent plays, and goes even darker with those surprising twists and turns she so effectively uses in DELELA. She clearly has a strong voice and it deserves to be heard.

DELELA is a very intelligent play in its employ of equilibrium disruption, and I hope the theatre team behind it embraces that character going forward without fear of upsetting people. I hope they continue to speak their truth loudly (and then even louder) in such a creative way.

You have until 16 September to catch the twisted and cheeky DELELA at the Baxter Theatre. Tickets are available for booking online through Webtickets.

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