When Soweto Came to Town 

TheatreFIRST's thought-provoking look at race and resources in post-apartheid South Africa.

It's enough to make you start dreaming of fairy godmothers. Somebody needs to give TheatreFIRST a big pile of money and a dedicated space of its own. It's downright shameful that a company that consistently produces smart, well-acted plays has gotten so pinched by the current state of the economy and the lack of performance space that it can fully stage only one play this season. To its credit, TheatreFIRST is still bringing interesting new work to the public through a series of staged readings at Barnes and Noble in Jack London Square, but as is made abundantly clear by the current production of Mooi Street Moves -- a play which is about space and resources, come to think of it -- nothing is quite the same as a real play.

And the funny-yet-painful Mooi Street Moves, by Johannesburg's Paul Slabolepszy, is very real. This is obvious from the first moment audience members have to pick their way through the set to reach their seats. The usually quite elegant Berkeley City Club space is unrecognizable beneath the flotsam and jetsam of Stix Letsebe's high-rise apartment; set designer and installation artist Christina La Sala has covered almost every surface with trash, laundry, appliance boxes, and foodstuffs. It's like a post-apocalyptic dorm room, and is where self-described "middleman" Stix rests between deals and stores his merchandise. From the moment the not-too-bright Henry Stone comes stumbling in looking for his older brother, the atmosphere of impending disaster is palpable.

The set perfectly captures what happened when, according to Stix, "Soweto came to town." As Clive Chafer explains in his director's notes to the play, in 1990 when state-sanctioned apartheid in South Africa started coming down, there were plenty of growing pains because not enough of the system was dismantled. While Nelson Mandela left his jail cell after 27 years and South African blacks finally got to vote, the redistribution of space and resources hadn't been well planned for, and there was still a great deal of unrest and state-sanctioned violence against blacks. So township blacks took matters into their own hands in white and middle-class areas such as Hillbrow -- "expropriating," in Chafer's words, the high-rises and the retail establishments.

Stix' place -- the apartment where Henry's mysteriously absent brother used to live -- is in one of these high-rises. The closest thing to a landlord is the shadowy "Godfather," who comes around periodically and accepts rent in the form of whatever spare consumer goods or foodstuffs the tenant has lying around. Not only is the elevator broken, but there is apparently someone armed to the teeth living in it. The water has been turned off, and the electricity -- to hear Stix cursing in Swahili at the naked lightbulb that hangs from the ceiling -- comes at the whim of capricious gods.

It's a situation in which Stix, the sun-faced David Skillman, is perfectly comfortable. He goes to the river for water, expertly plies his trade, and avidly follows the exploits of his soccer favorites. When he hears the Godfather's signature three rings on the buzzer, he chooses something from his stash of goods and goes into the hall to pay the rent. He has snazzy clothes and new gym shoes. So when Henry Stone shows up, clutching a plastic bag of his belongings and generally looking too piteous for words, Stix is at a loss for what to do with "this white idiot," who clearly doesn't have the skills to survive in a drastically changed Johannesburg.

The convention of a play with two highly disparate characters is that they will eventually become friends: Slabolepszy knows this and honors the form. Henry and Stix do come to an understanding when Stix takes him under his wing and tries to teach him how to hustle Stix' merchandise. The pleasure of watching the inevitable unfold lies mostly in Stix' vibrancy and outlandish (to Henry) physicality and how Henry tries, clumsily, to be more like Stix. Skillman is fantastic as Stix -- he has a great voice, he makes great faces, he makes great noises (my favorite was "goink," to suggest the sound of a door being slammed), and he owns the space. The scene where Stix tries to teach Henry how to sell anything to anyone, describing the street scene -- "Cars are going by. In the alley, that guy is still throwing up" -- is masterful; Skillman is completely convincing. It helps that Stix gets most of the good lines and all the Swahili (rather oddly, it must be noted, since that language is hardly spoken in South Africa), and gets to do things such as dry his hands on Henry's shirt while Henry is still wearing it.

Henry, meanwhile, has a lot to adjust to, as we note when he rushes back into the apartment after trying to leave. "They're chopping up a sheep! On the stairs!" he exclaims, horrified. "They're selling it in big chunks!" It can't be easy playing a character who is pretty slow on the uptake, and at first it's a little unclear what Henry's problem is, exactly, but Joseph Foss takes his time in revealing a basically sweet, innocent kid from the country eager to please the wiser and more worldly Stix.

Things in the high-rise aren't all informal butchery and lessons in selling stolen merchandise, however. The play takes a serious turn in the second act when Stix talks about his first attempts to rent an apartment, about how even neatly dressed and completely polite, he had door after door "goinked" shut in his face. "We're not discriminatory," one owner told him. "But we're trying Indians and coloreds this year. Next year we're trying blacks." Goink. And the setup for the denouement is subtle enough that when the shocking twist comes, it really is a shock -- while the play ends in a completely appropriate way, it's still a thought-provoking surprise.

Real in the details -- Stix drumming absentmindedly on jars and bowls in his makeshift kitchen as he thinks about a big score, Henry talking earnestly about his plans for a career -- and subtly moving in what it reveals about how far South Africa has to go, Mooi Street Moves is a lot of play in a small space. It's also useful for American audiences who might think that racism isn't an issue here; think again, Slabolepszy tells us, when we watch Henry try to talk about the differences between Stix and him without coming out and mentioning the most obvious. Once again Chafer has brought us a play from another country that shows us something important about our own -- yet another reason it's so important audiences continue to support TheatreFIRST so they can keep going here, in one form or another.


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