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Years in the making: How ‘Hlakanyana’ made it to the stage

The journey towards the staged production of Hlakanyana has undoubtedly been a long and difficult one, but through a growing team of innovative and passionate musicians, theatre-makers, writers and performers, it’s finally made it to the theatre.

Hlakanyana music folklore performance
‘Hlakanyana’ 2021 workshop performance

Directed by Janice Honeyman and co-produced by Madevu Entertainment, the musical casts a spotlight on ‘Hlakanyana’, one of the best-known characters in African folklore. A cunning, unethical creature, depicted in animal or human form, Hlakanyana is the long-awaited son of the chief of a village, but instead of being a uniting force he leaves devastation in his wake. The cast includes Sandisile Dlangalala, Dolly Louw, MoMo Matsunyane, Sibusiso Mxosana, Manakomba Ndimande, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Mphumzi Nontshinga and Kensiwe Mathebula Tshabalala.

In light of Hlakanyana’s current run at the Keorapetse William Kgositsile Theatre on the University of Johannesburg’s Kingsway Campus, we thought we’d trace the innovative journey of this multifaceted production.

UJ Arts Culture Hlakanyana theatre music production South Africa 2021
‘Hlakanyana’ 2020 workshop images

A production deferred

The Hlakanyana journey started in 2020 when it was commissioned by UJ Arts & Culture who teamed up with Madevu Entertainment and director Janice Honeyman to develop and produce the work – a retelling of the traditional Zulu folktale Hlakanyana. Commissioned as part of FADA’s flagship Interdisciplinary Theatre Programme, Hlakanyana was to draw on the creative talents of students across the disciplines of Visual Art, Interior Design, Industrial Design, Graphic Design, Fashion Design, Jewellery, Architecture and Multimedia. However, like so many other projects and performances planned for that year, the production was waylaid by the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Despite the stringent restrictions, UJ Arts & Culture, under Pieter Jacobs innovatively revised their strategy and Madevu Entertainment’s Zolani Shangase and Michael William Wallace, along with Honeyman, were invited to continue the creation and development of the musical using the popular online platforms available.

The generative nature of digital collaboration

The creative team grew from the initial three to include Dionne Song and Sne Dladla and new strategies had to be developed to get the results the team were looking for. While the theatres and the rehearsal venues remained shuttered, the Hlakanyana team took to Whatsapp, Zoom, MS Teams and just about every other digital platform to continue their work. According to Wallace, the move to the digital space changed the nature of the initial workshopping process. Rather than getting into the dramatisation of the work almost immediately, the actors, along with the producers and director, delved much deeper into the development of the script and unexpected connections were made.

‘Normally when you are in a room together, there is a tendency to push through the workshop process quickly and get into the creating. Online, we were able to emphasise the discussion process more and worked on our ideas over a longer time period. This allowed us to view the piece through the different lenses of the cast, mull over the characters and stories we were working with and sleep on our ideas.’

Michael William Wallace

For Honeyman, the process was both new and incredibly interesting. When comparing the experience to the rehearsal room, although it was different, the incidental benefits were wholeheartedly embraced. ‘It was possibly a little more cerebral and less spontaneous. There was a kind of gentleness and thoughtfulness and respect for one another that came out in the Zoom meetings and I think that’s because you can’t really interrupt in Zoom, so thoughts are finished, thought about, weighed up, and then filed in some way or other,’ said Honeyman.

Zolani Shangase and MoMo Matsunyane

Crafting the music

Music, of course, is central to Hlakanyana. During the 2020 lockdown, funding and support from the 2020 ACT | Nedbank Development Grant in Music meant that Madevu Entertainment, Honeyman and UJ Arts & Culture could continue to work on crafting the sounds of the production.

While most of the script could be developed online along with much of the original musical score, the actual creation of the play’s music needed to be completed in the theatre. As the country moved into level 2 of lockdown, Madevu Entertainment was able to move the creative process off the screens and into the theatre, where the next stage of production, the music, could take shape.

There was limited time to bring the musical score to life, but they pulled it together within a week. Speaking on the experience at the time, Shangase praised the expertise of the band and actors, and the preparedness of the production team who had the sheet music ready from the get-go.

‘It was challenging to piece together everything with a seven-piece band and nine singers, but everyone has been so professional. This week has been such a blessing and we can’t even begin to articulate how great it’s been working and playing with such talented musicians and a cast of brilliant actors and singers.’

Zolani Shangase
Zolani Shangase

Creating an aural-visual experience

In 2021, Hlakanyana was once again halted due to lockdown regulations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the creative team continued to develop the production. On Heritage Day, 24 September 2021, they launched The Sounds of Hlakanyana, five songs recorded live at UJ Arts Centre that were made available to stream free of charge.

Even then, they managed to take it one step further, joining forces with Sebastian Burger and Callum Stout from Ohoneone Animation Company to create an aural-visual experience through animation that captures a sense of the story and the theatre production that was to come. The Sounds of Hlakanyana went on to win the Award for Best Public Performance at the 7th Humanities and Social Sciences Awards 2022, presented by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS).

‘While The Sounds of Hlakanyana was intended to offer a taste of what is to come in 2022 when the full musical will be presented, and to test some of the material, the online concert was created as animated virtual experience in its own right and we are delighted that it has resonated with audiences.’

Pieter Jacobs, Head of UJ Arts & Culture
The Sounds of Hlakanyana premiere

A tale of innovation and perseverance

Two years and a number of iterations later, and on stage at the Keorapetse William Kgositsile Theatre, Hlakanyana is dazzling live audiences with its inimitable blend of music, dance, costume, Afrofuturistic folklore and contemporary theatre. The production, in all of its forms, can be seen as something of a testament to the commitment and creativity of those who stuck with the production from its inception, through multiple lockdowns, iterations and reimaginings until its live debut.

‘[Hlakanyana’s] gone through many forms and stages and a lot of creative minds have helped give birth to this show,’ said the play’s lead Sandi Dlangalala ahead of Hlakanyana’s opening night. ‘There were so many people involved in the music, the script went through nine drafts, there were a lot of workshops and rehearsals… you can feel that’s it’s been such a long, hard road to get to where we are now.’

Sandi Dlangalala

Hlakanyana will run at the UJ Arts Centre on the University of Johannesburg’s Kingsway Campus in Auckland Park until 8 June. Book your tickets here.

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