Red Earth Revisited

Seen on July 4, 2015 @ National Arts Festival, Grahamstown

In my search through the enormous amount of performances at the National Arts Festival I was looking for stories from South Africa and more particular local stories too. Realizing that Red Earth Revisited combined a Xhosa story with puppetry I knew I had to see this story about the legendary Nongqawuse. This young Xhosa girl prophesied that the  Xhosa would be rid of their enemies if they killed their cattle and burned their grain. But this is asking for a collective self-murder as Xhosa have lived with their cattle for ages. How would young girls get married if there is no cattle left for lobola? What would children eat? How would a tribe survive?

As we enter we are greeted by the actors all dressed in orange, the colour of clay, the colour of the land of the Xhosa. At the set there are the reminders of a typical village, woodwork, more orange, reed basket. The story is told through the eyes of a stork. This giant bird that makes its home in the northern and southern hemisphere, which colour is black and wide and migrates throughout the year, perceived in the north as the bringer of new life tells the story about English fighting Xhosa where cattle, land and people die.

The story is set in 1818, the days that the English were trying to conquer land after they had landed in SA. With guns and canons they fought the Xhosa. Years of war, mysterious cattle deseases and heavy losses had made the tribe weak. One day the ancestors visit the young Nongqawuse in the reed and the spirit says that on a special day there will be not one son but to suns rising. There will be a huge wind which will chase the whites into the sea. For that predication to come through all Xhosa have to kill their cattle and burn their grain. The young girl tells this to her uncle and the tribes divide in believers and unbelievers. When the King hears about the slaugther that has begon he has to make the most difficult decision in his life, choosing between ancestors and cattle – two things that are of the uttermost importance to Xhosas.

This visual feast about truth and lies, believers and unbelievers, a vision to safe the world, the tension between the old way of life and new emerging ways, the past, present and future, the ancestors and oppression, freedom and courage is brought by a cast of established and emerging actors, finding their voice, telling their own stories, manipulating puppets, dancing and singing, all playing multiple roles to narrate the story through a bird-eye perspective on a legendary tale that still divides people about the nature of what really happened. Were the Xhosa tricked by the English? Did the English Gouvernor hide in the reeds and pretended he was the ancestor? Was the strict uncle manipulating his girl for his own good?

Red Earth Revisited is a rich rewarding and thought provoking play about manipulation, truth, belief and unbelief. Onny Huisink and Saskia Janse have done a magnificent job in making South Africans tell some of their own stories in a visually engaged way with a splendid cast. The use of masks, puppets, props, cultural dresses, colours and costumes. Brilliant!