When I knew that the trip to South Africa was confirmed, I gave some thought to what production I might offer. My first idea was Aesop, a play I wrote at the end of the 90s, based on his fables (the Hare and the Tortoise et al.) However, I soon decided that this was both lazy and ill-judged, and that it would be much more appropriate to write something with an African theme. It would also give me the opportunity to tailor the piece to the strengths of the school: to include opportunities for song (DCS has the most astonishing choir), as well as dance, drumming, marimba… and anything else that presented itself.
I happened to have a copy of African Folk Tales on my bookshelf, and this seemed an ideal solution: to choose a number of stories, and dramatise each one separately, before putting them into a coherent order. This would allow for a variety of styles, and maximize the number of roles available. Besides, it was a style I was familiar with, having previously adapted quite a few tales from around the world.
The source-book had about a hundred tales, but it proved surprisingly difficult to find enough which fitted my needs, being too long, too short, too rambling… However, one by one, suitable stories presented themselves (though I was pleased when I remembered I had already written Anansi, the story of the trickster spider.
Anansi was the only story not written specifically for Kwasuka Sukela – Footprints, and the only one not to come from the book of African folk tales. Anansi was the name of the trickster spider, though he was drawn from the culture of West, rather than South, Africa. His stories travelled with the slaves to the Caribbean islands, and to America, where they went through a transformation. In the Southern States, the trickster spider became Aunt Nancy in the Southern US, and then changed species, becoming Brer Rabbit (whose exploits form part of the Disney movie, Song of the South.)
Anansi is weaker than his enemies, so must use his wits to defeat them. He is the classic underdog, which makes him a particular hero for children, who likewise cannot rely on physical strength.
In this play, Anansi has three tasks to perform, the most memorable being that of the Gum Baby used to trap Mmoatia the fairy.. In its American form, the story becomes that of the tar baby, but my own recollection is that it is a trick played on Brer Rabbit, not by him.
Demana and Demanzana
This was virtually the first story in the African Folk Tales book, and so gave me the immediate impression that finding suitable stories would be a piece of cake… it wasn’t. But this was a relatively easy story to tell, with hints of Hansel and Gretel: a brother and sister lost in the jungle, using dropped items to show the way, and using trickery to escape from an evil creature who wished to eat them.
I suppose, if I am honest, I did have some misgivings about the bad guy being a cannibal instead of a witch, in case I was being guilty of falling into unfortunate stereotypes, but in the end I decided to go with it unless advised otherwise, as it was the way he was described in the original story. And sometimes you can be just too sensitive.
This was the last play of the six that I wrote, and in some desperation: I needed another tale, and a pretty thorough search through the African Folk Tales book had proved fruitless. I am fairly sure that I had read this one and rejected it, on the grounds that its initial premise – the various ingredients of soup competing for a husband – seemed rather silly.
A second, or it may have been third, reading suggested certain advantages, however. The story itself, if you forgot the fact that they were all vegetables, had real charm. It also contained a neat reversal, with one character being bullied by the others, but managing to turn the tables because of her kind and caring nature.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the cast would require eight girls and one boy, and since I assumed (correctly) that there would be more girls than boys auditioning, this was too good an opportunity to turn down. And now that it is written, of course, I find it charming.
The three sisters
Nothing to do with Chekhov, I’m afraid, though I suppose there are echoes: sibling rivalry, awkward courtship, concerns about money… But this African version is more plot-driven (it is not about three sisters who think about going to Johannesburg… but don’t.)
It is the longest play so far, and the most complex, taking place over a period of years, allowing for character development… within the constraints of a folk tale (it’s not Chekhov.) It also shows a change in style, showing the bloodier and more violent side of such stories: one of the girls is drowned in a river by the other two, but then returns from the dead to exact her revenge.
The original story only had one name: Cuulu, the heroine, so I had to invent five more. The girls were A, B and C – Abby, Beulah, and Cuulu, and their suitors, fiancés, husbands were D,E and F – Donny, Edmund, and Femi.
This is the shortest of all the plays, and is in many ways the most mournful; certainly it is the only one without an upbeat, uplifting ending. So perhaps it is just as well that Viloshni and I have decided to move it from where I had placed it originally, at the very end, as it may have been difficult to shift the audience’s mood. It is now the penultimate play, and also serves a practical function.
Originally called Old Woman, It has changed name recently, as that title is neither descriptive nor distinctive enough, as several of the plays have a character called Old Woman. What is it about old women and folk tales? Witches, hags, evil stepmothers… I suppose it’s just a reflection that just about all of the collectors of such stories were men (though I can’t believe it was just men who told them originally. But look out for The Tree.
We have decided to cast it mainly from the Grade Eight learners, our youngest cohort, as the great majority of the characters are children. This would allow the rest of the cast some time to get changed, ready for the final play…
The Three Sons
Another play to go through a name change. Well, more of a sex change really. The original story concerned three sons, but on the basis that it had definite Lear-like qualities – the tragedy, not the nonsense-writer – I switched them to daughters. It would also increase the number of female roles – an important consideration. So, The Three Daughters.
It was only after I discovered the Three Sisters story that I decided to switch them back. Some hangovers from the female version remained. I was not as diligent as I might have been at applying the linguistic changes, nor at proof-reading, with some confusing gender changes in mid-scene lasting through to the copied script. It also meant that the three main characters are named Child 1, Child 2 and Child 3 – not exactly the most colourful-sounding roles.
The original tale was the most sparse of all, requiring the most radical expansion; I could not help pinching ideas (and even the occasional line) from King Lear.
This was also the only play which I decided to update, with the three magical objects – a mirror which would show anything, shoes which could go anywhere, and a magical healing potion – became a mobile phone, a credit card, and a medical degree. This change also allows us to finish the performance with modern clothing, modern music, modern dance… dragging Kwasuka Sukela into the 21st century.