Scene It: A round-about journey of history with Orpheus in Africa at the Fugard Theatre

October 27, 2015

The purpose of theatre productions, I’ve always thought, is to make you question what you know, to ponder what you believe and make adjustments or accept things as they are after you’ve thought about them thoroughly.


Orpheus in Africa, directed by David Kramer and currently running at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town until 9 January 2016 made me think, sure, and made me question what I know to be true of history but I doubt I’ll be making adjustments to my understanding of historical events anytime soon.


Now in its second Capetonian run, the show brings to life the little known story of Orpheus McAdoo (played by Aubrey Poo), the free born son of a slave, and a graduate from The Hampton Institute in Virginia, USA. He was the first African American impresario to perform in the Cape of Good Hope in the late 1890’s, where he achieved unprecedented success for himself and his Virginia Jubilee Singers.

While the costumes and set design by Birrie Le Roux and Saul Radomsky respectively were incredibly beautiful to look at and the attention to detail for the late 1890s era so meticulously applied, the same cannot be said of the pass law on display here.


The internal passport, an initiative to drive all natives out of the Cape Colony, was first tried out in the country in 1797, but the Native (Urban Areas) Act was only properly enforced post 1923, post British colonization. Kramer has used a historical footnote as his basis for this musical storyline, but as the tale weaves from South Africa to Australia and back again, a lot of the struggle of black and coloured people and the nuances of the time period get lost in translation. More often than not, one could be mistaken for thinking this was a piece about apartheid, which only followed decades later.


That Lynelle Kenned is talented is no longer a question … after seeing what she could do in West Side Story, I’d have expected nothing less from her as a performer and boy, does she deliver as opera singer Mattie Allen in Orpheus! Poo as titular character Orpheus can certainly hold a tune but lacks the necessary chemistry with Kenned to make their unfolding love story believable.


Gideon Lombard is a true acting magician of note – the way he seamlessly transforms between his three characters is pure magic and I still can’t decide which of them I love most. Probably the bumbling Capetonian J.P. Toerien, husband of one of the women who may have inspired the lyrics of “Sarie Marais” - he was just too awkwardly cute!


Dean Balie, whom I last saw perform in Blood Brothers, is a spectacular performer but his talents are terribly wasted in Orpheus. Yes, casting him as one of the two jesters (the other being comedian Sne Dladla) is for comedic effect and hilarious they were indeed, but Balie deserves better. The minstrels’ send-up was just a tad too demeaning for my liking.


The ensemble cast projects a great energetic spirit, seen vividly in the closing number and had me humming the tune for days afterwards.


Fancy grabbing a bite before the show? I highly recommend grabbing a chicken strips and chips basket (R48), accompanied by a delicious Blue Iris cocktail from the bar!


Orpheus in Africa runs at the Fugard Theatre until 9 January 2016. Tickets are R 110 to R220 and available at Computicket. Don’t miss their great value for money offer - the released seasonal special of four tickets for R400 is available when booking through the theatre box office at +27(0)21 461 4554.


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