by Hedy Weiss
June 11, 2010
Timing is everything. And this week's U.S. debut of "Itsoseng," Omphile Molusi's wholly transcendent one-man show—now through Sunday only in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's intimate studio—could not be more in sync with current events.
At the very moment the 2010 FIFA World Cup kicks off in a newly renovated stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa (marking the first time this premier international soccer tournament has been hosted by an African nation), Molusi, a writer-actor of exceptional grace and fervency, demonstrates both the passion and audacity to expose much that has gone wrong in his South African homeland in the the past 16 years. His show is a searing dirge for all that has not been done since the end of apartheid, the election of Nelson Mandela and the presumed advent of full democracy.
Molusi paints neither a pretty nor a terribly hopeful picture. In fact, the final word in the writer-actor's riveting, quasi-autobiographical 75-minute eruption of powerhouse storytelling and incendiary truth telling is "dream." And rarely has that word seemed so full of futility. But if all this sounds dreary, be advised: The boyish-looking actor is a wondrous artist—eloquent, fearless, fiercely physical and often very funny. And his bare-bones production—a classic example of "theater of the poor"—could not be more rich in artistic terms.
Molusi assumes the guise of Mawilla, an unemployed twentysomething man with few prospects. He still lives with his mother in a township that, during the last years of apartheid, was ruled by a corrupt black man appointed by the white authorities. When the big changes came, that man tried to cling to power, and the locals—in an act that would doom them for years to come—burned and looted the shopping complex he controlled. It also was the center of their world in terms of jobs and daily life, and its loss had an immeasurable effect.
Molusi takes us back to his grade school days when he got caught up in the "revolution" and fell in love with the local beauty Dolly. He then bitterly chronicles the years of broken promises from politicians who said they would rebuild Itsoseng but left only despair and degradation to fester.
Dolly tragically turns to prostitution until her broken body, hauntingly captured as a rag doll that Molusi uncannily injects with the breath of his belief, gives out.
One friend turns to alcohol and another leaves town for a waiter's job in the city. And though Molusi is tempted to follow him, he is torn by his fierce determination to see things turned around at home despite all his acquired cynicism and pessimism.
What you quickly realize is that Molusi's hypnotically told story, and the anger, frustration, love and deep sadness that fuel it, are not unique to Itsoseng. This show could easily be performed in Detroit, Watts or parts of Chicago—all of which burned in the 1960s and are still hoping to rise from the ashes.