AS A student, Mongi Mthombeni endured several hours of terror when he was arrested, beaten up and tortured by a policeman. The assault so traumatised him that he buried it away in a dark corner of his mind for many years. But while he was attending playwrighting workshops hosted by London’s Royal Court Theatre recently, the time seemed right finally to put pen to paper and spit it all out.
The result is I See You, written by Mthombeni under his pen name Mongiwekhaya and directed by actress Noma Dumezweni, who was recently cast as the adult Hermione Granger in the forthcoming Harry Potter stage adaptation.
Mthombeni’s drama about police brutality, the definition of “blackness” and power relations in SA will debut at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs on February 25.
It is part of the theatre’s 60th birthday celebrations.
The play is coproduced with Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, where it will be presented after its London season.
Mthombeni wrote it while attending the Royal Court’s new writing workshops in SA. Supported by the British Council and Connect ZA, this programme saw 11 local playwrights being mentored by a crack international team.
The play’s title, taken from the isiZulu greeting Sawubona, alludes to a Zulu police officer taunting an educated young black man to speak to him in his mother tongue as a bargaining chip for his freedom.
It’s a dream international writing debut for this 34-year-old physical theatre performer, director and writer who describes himself as “slightly reclusive … I write and work mainly with my stage friends”.
“I’d been trying to break into writing, but there are practically no writing programmes in SA,” he says.
Mthombeni has written for television series such as Inkaba, and has performed alongside fellow actor Daniel Buckland in plays such as The Butcher Brothers and Fuse.
He is a National Arts Festival regular, directing works such as The Feather Collector and, last year, the Standard Bank Ovation Award-winning puppetry piece, Qhawe.
AS WELL as his work with the Handspring Puppet Company — he performed in the company’s much-lauded Ubu and the Truth Commission in December — he is artist in residence at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape.
“I was like one of those overachiever types who like to study before they go to school, to look extra smart. So I was prepared,” he says of his invitation to attend the writing workshops. “But, they said: ‘Throw everything that you have away.’ And then took us on an amazing writing experience. Elyse Dodgson (the Royal Court’s international director) said: ‘Write the one story you’re scared of,’ and I immediately thought of the one story that made me nervous.”
Based on a real encounter, the play’s central theme, he explains, is the relationship between the police and the public — but it’s also about survival. “It’s about a young man who was born in SA, but raised overseas. He goes to university in SA, but finds himself estranged from the cultural beliefs of the different ethnic groups.
“Then there’s a cop with an existential crisis and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) who takes it out on this boy …
“And the boy reaches a point where he will be whatever the cop wants him to be, to pull himself out of that darkness (by) serving his tormentor. The play relates how in seven hours, over the course of an evening, they come to terms with their differences — with each other and themselves.”
It wasn’t easy to relive his own trauma, he admits. “It’s a cliché, but the truth — writing it has been my therapy.”
Mthombeni recalls emerging from the police station, dazed, after being detained, beaten and throttled. “I saw the sunlight pouring through the door, with my friends staring at me … When they touched me, it was like electricity and I screamed at them. I had been holding it back so long.
“They took the day off to support me…. I would just break out in hysterical crying. It took several weeks (to recover). People said: ‘Go to a lawyer,’ but I had scars. I didn’t want to go to another police station and prolong the traumatic event. I’m also a pacifist, or maybe a coward — I didn’t want to destroy the man (the policeman),” he says.
When he did eventually feel ready to write about the encounter “as a way to redeem other victims”, he vowed not to direct it or act in it, so it would go beyond being “just a confessional”.
After rigorous interrogation and reworking, thanks to the Royal Court’s international team, I See You is now ready for its first professional airing.
MTHOMBANI says such a peer-review process is vital for the sharpening of a new work. “The real writing is in the redrafting; the first draft is always s***, but you need to write it anyway.
“That support is so necessary — overseas it’s everywhere, and is seen as not unique, but essential for the exploration of the arts.”
The Royal Court has had a long and fruitful creative association with this country going back more than 40 years, when a mixed company from SA made history by performing several of Athol Fugard’s works there.
Dodgson says the Royal Court Theatre has been running international play development programmes all over the world for more than 20 years. “Our project in SA over the last three years has been one of the most significant and inspiring of all our experiences. Eleven ground-breaking new works for SA and the world were created — work that gives us an insight into life in SA today and the urgent concerns of a younger generation two decades after the end of apartheid.”
The new writing programme was so fruitful that the 11 formed their own collective — PlayRiot, dedicated to telling authentic contemporary South African stories and cultivating a culture of play readings. Says Mthombeni: “It’s about how to get our plays seen and read … our goal is to find other writers and develop a process that affirms writers.”
PLAYRIOTS’s ranks include Napo Masheane, Khayelihle “Dom” Gumede, Neil Coppen, Amy Jephta, Omphile Molusi, Genna Gardini, Nobantu Shabangu, Tau Maserumule, Elliot Moleba and Simo Majola.
Many have already made waves in domestic artistic circles, with Coppen being a former Standard Bank Young Artist for drama.
Six of the plays were selected for rehearsed readings at the Royal Court and all 11 were read at the Market last year. Although Mongiwekhaya’s play was the one chosen for a run at the Royal Court, some of the others have been snapped up by local producers, says Molusi.
Shabangu’s Candyland will be staged at the State Theatre in February; Masheane’s A New Song had a short run at the Market Theatre in October before transferring to the State Theatre in December, where it will be restaged in August. Coppen’s NewFoundLand is also slated for a State Theatre run, while Jephta is reworking her script to be published by Junkets this year.
As for his playwright moniker, Mongiwekhaya, Mthombeni says he only discovered this was his real name after seeing it in his ID. He adopted it as a “secret name” that symbolises the spiritual process of creation. “Creating art is a calling, similar to being a sangoma — we are responsible in some way for the psyche of our culture,” he reflects.
“That’s why we desperately need the industry to give our writers more support. There’s a lack of self-awareness out there — we see each other on the streets, but don’t know each other’s stories. Life isn’t the way we see it play out on the soapies.”
• I See You runs at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Sloane Square, London, from February 25 to March 26.