Drawing, electrical engineering, the making of The Lion King, and devotedly staring at the front of The Market Theatre are only a few of the unlikely threads running through the story of South African theatre-making outfit, Theatre Duo.
As the name implies, Theatre Duo comprises two theatre practitioners – Billy Edward Langa and Mahlatsi Mokgonyana – who, if you are an avid follower of South Africa’s theatre scene, you’d likely know from staged works such as Tswalo, Just Antigone, Egoli, and Red Soil/Brown Soil to name a few. In addition to their award-winning work as a duo, both Langa and Mokgonyana have countless credits to their names as independent actors, writers, and directors. But where did it all begin for Theatre Duo?
‘I had just started at The [Market Theatre] Lab,’ begins Mokgonyana. ‘I walked in, and there was Billy busy fixing a light in a rehearsal room. I asked him, “Dude, do you know where the office is?” and he was like “Yeah!” and we became friends from there. One would think there’s a big story behind Theatre Duo, but that’s it.’
‘That’s it!’ laughs Langa.
We are – myself and Theatre Duo – seated in a conference room at the top of The Market Theatre Laboratory, laughing more than we’re talking. While Langa and Mokgonyana don’t quite finish each other’s sentences, they’re bouncing thoughts and ideas off of each other, constantly. There’s a synchronicity between the two that’s undeniable, and perhaps it’s down to their similar experiences of discovering performance.
Mokgonyana grew up partly in Limpopo and partly in Thembisa, while Langa grew up in Hammanskraal. Both had interests in the arts, but neither ever thought of it as something that could be pursued as a career. Mokgonyana took to drawing in his primary and high school years, while Langa enjoyed the written word as a hobby, attending the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre in Sophiatown on weekends. Both found inspiration in happenstance, with Sello Maake ka Ncube talking about the making of The Lion King and Gregory Maqoma performing a solo dance piece on Morning Live both serving as rare glimpses of a world seen only on television. Such experiences were also pertinent enough to prompt both artists to pursue their studies at The Market Theatre Laboratory.
‘Back then they were only taking 12 people a year, so you might not be chosen, you know? For me, making it into the Lab was like “okay, I actually can do this art thing after all. The Lab took me, it must mean I have potential”,’ says Langa. ‘I had studied electrical engineering so I was also coming in thinking, “Okay I’m just gonna touch the lights” you know? Then I bump into Mahlatsi for the first time while doing that.’
The two would become fast friends, often being cast in the same productions, be it acting alongside one another, or with one of them performing while another directed, wrote, or stage-managed. It was around 2015, during a Market Theatre production of Egoli, when the two decided to establish themselves as a theatrical two-hander.
‘We were talking a lot about independent theatre-making and making your own work within the institution. How do you make a name for yourself? How do you come up with new ways of approaching work? Around that time, we decided that we needed to do this thing – we needed to put our resources together and actually make our own work. So we started Theatre Duo,’ says Mokgonyana.
For Mokgonyana and Langa, the approach to creating new work is a free-flowing and collaborative one. ‘It’s friendship first, so every idea is a valid one,’ as Langa puts it. ‘The quality of the work kind of embodies the quality of the friendship.’
Over time, the two have managed to carve out a remarkable and arguably signature style for themselves. The work of Langa and Mokgonyana plays beautifully with both text and physicality, sometimes using one to inform the other, or other times restricting, isolating, or refining one medium to highlight or signify the importance of the other. The ability to spotlight intimately framed yet universally relevant stories is another staple of the two’s work. An example is their performance of Salt for Season 4 of The Centre for the Less Good Idea where a restricted, but refined use of the body is used by Langa to both mimic and replace the text in the performance. Then there is the recent Red Soil/Brown Soil, their intercontinental and interdisciplinary performance with theatre-makers from Norway, which once again made strong use of detailed, but fragmented text to mirror a frenetic, but gentle physical performance.
‘The important thing is that the text needs to be embodied,’ says Mokgonyana. ‘It needs to live as a body. Not necessarily translating the words with the body because it’s for us, it’s not dance, it’s not sign language, it’s not interpretation –’
‘It’s an extension,’ adds Langa.
‘It’s an extension. There’s this understanding of the body and the voice as separate, but the voice exists inside the body. It’s cultivated by the muscles inside the body so if the muscles are not well-trained, the voice will not be strong,’ explains Mokgonyana.
An average day for the two? ‘We sit at the restaurant in the Square and we stare at The Market Theatre,’ says Mokgonyana. ‘We chat and we greet everyone who walks past. Next thing you know, we’re suddenly leaving for Germany and Scandinavia and travelling the world.’
Truthfully, an average day for Theatre Duo involves as much work as it does socialising in The Market Square. While observation informs a large part of their process, Langa and Mokgonyana often start work late into the night, stretching into the early hours of the morning. ‘We’ll talk and brainstorm and then we’ll dive in, but as much as possible, we try and dive into our work without strain,’ explains Mokgonyana. ‘If you’re always straining yourself when you’re working, you lose that human element and it all becomes mechanical.’
Recently, the two have wrapped up a run of Red Soil/Brown Soil, and have been busy brushing up on Tswalo, which is set to be staged at The Market Theatre this month. They’re also busy working on an upcoming adaptation of Eugène Ionesco’s post-war, avant-garde work Rhinoceros.
While theatre groups or collectives are nothing new in the long and rich tradition of theatre in the country, Theatre Duo serves as a necessary reminder in a local industry that can be hard to crack: Collaboration is key. Together, Langa and Mokgonyana have managed to get their work studied in universities like UCKAR and Wits, they’ve facilitated classes in neighbouring countries like Botswana, and they’ve travelled the world over to collaborate, perform, and create new work. For many young theatre students or practitioners, Theatre Duo stands out as a shining example of how to excel in a difficult industry.
‘We try as much as we can to open the gap in this industry and to bridge connections into the rest of the world,’ explains Langa. ‘We try not to cry too much about the state of things, because we might just cry forever and never really connect with the world and compete on a global scale.’
‘We want to build a legacy,’ concludes Mokgonyana. ‘We want to build a catalogue of work – a series of books, tangible things for people to engage with. We want to contribute to this industry in a meaningful way, to make sure that the wheel keeps on turning and it becomes easier for the next generation.’
I leave the two sitting outside The Market Theatre as they discuss plans for their adaptation of Rhinoceros. They are talking, laughing, and working as they always do. They greet everyone who walks past.
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