At a time when COVID-19 is making the world introspect and reassess, is there a place for the Noah of the Bible’s Old Testament to come back and, literally and metaphorically, save the world from itself? That’s what Port Elizabeth playwright and actor Zwai Mgijima is pondering in his new play, New Brighton Noah.
Mgijima has received National Arts Council (NAC) funding for his Testing Ground project, a cultural exchange collaboration between his Brighton Players theatre company, and England’s Conway Collective performing arts company and Essex University. The aim is to tour the play locally and abroad, fostering intercontinental conversations and exploring common issues of social cohesion.
He has long drawn inspiration from his late, great mentor and fellow New Brighton son, Winston Ntshona (whose creative partnership with Dr John Kani and Athol Fugard earned them Tony Awards on Broadway in the 1970s). Like these storytelling pioneers, Mgijima is known for taking his authentic homegrown stories to South Africa’s and the world’s stages, with his partnership with the Conway Collective going back 20 years.
Protest theatre may have altered its focus since the apartheid era, but South Africans’ daily struggles remain – and live performance is a dynamic way to articulate and explore them.
Mgijima’s motto, ever since being taken under Ntshona’s wing and taking part in a youth theatre festival in Scotland in the mid-1990s, has been: ‘Do what you do best. Be simple; be who you are. Tell your own stories.’ Another maxim he lives by is: ‘In humanity we invest’, tying in with the values of ubuntu.
His latest project sees him reflecting on society and the times through a philosophical lens. The play has been in development in South Africa and England for several months, probing how the public – not just the government – is complicit in perpetuating socioeconomic ills, and suggesting that the world is ‘so far gone’, a modern-day Noah is needed to save it.
However, the script has now taken a dramatic new twist in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘I’ve been rewriting the whole show in a South African context,’ he explains. ‘The New Brighton Noah story fits perfectly with the story of the coronavirus. God comes back to look for another Noah to save the world – right here in New Brighton.’
Mgijima and his co-star in the two-hander, fellow Nelson Mandela Bay actor Xolani Ngesi, were in England in January to develop, rehearse and perform New Brighton Noah, and conduct workshops with students at London Metropolitan University. COVID-19 was the last thing on their minds – in fact, the biggest scare they had was having to wait while an unexploded World War II device unearthed during construction was removed near their London lodgings.
‘It was quite something – these things from that past that come into the future,’ Mgijima says. ‘At the time, the coronavirus was a far distant story happening in China. We were there to rehearse with our [United Kingdom] director Luke Dixon, and open up a platform to hear people’s understanding of the question: what kind of a Noah will God be looking for?
‘In this time of corruption and false prophets, who make people eat rats and sow panic with Jik and Doom, what makes a good leader or a politician? People are living on the margins of poverty, leaving their land behind in the rural areas and coming to the cities. Why? There is an erosion of identity and values. We need to get our house in order to try to understand ourselves as human beings.’
Mgijima expects his play to be controversial in how it weaves in COVID-19 with the theme of individual responsibility, ‘but it’s important to provoke. We are so, “Don’t say this; don’t touch this.” If you look at the Fugards, Ntshonas and the Kanis, they were telling the truth and the world listened to them. As theatre practitioners, that’s what we’re all about.’
Once the country’s live theatre scene starts returning to a semblance of normality, Mgijima hopes to stage the play at the Port Elizabeth Opera House and also to ‘take our theatre to the people’ in the communities, before touring to a number of theatres in England later in the year.
‘My line of work is to open people’s eyes to see things in a different light,’ says Mgijima. New Brighton Noah aims to do just that – with COVID-19 as the topical hook to get people talking.