Review: Finding your brave heart with The Terrified Talabalushi

12 Dec 2023
Take the time to see this. We did, and we loved the experience. Step into the enchanting world of The Terrified Talabalushi, set deep in the Knysna forest of the Western Cape. This magical production, presented by the Windybrow Arts Centre and The Market Theatreunfolds across the Mannie Manim auditorium, creating a captivating spectacle that extends beyond the stage. Directed by award-winning playwright Omphile Molusi, and written by Cape Town-based Megan Choritz, The Terrified Talabalushi features the talented young actors of the Kwasha Theatre Company, whose performances will leave kids and adults alike with new thoughts about what it is to have courage (Showing until Sunday, Dec 17, book four or more tickets, and you'll pay R120 per ticket).
Tokkie, the protagonist, played by Sinegugu Mduli in The Terrified Talabalushi. Photo: Suzy Bernstein.

The play opens with Tokkie (played by Sinegugu Mduli) blowing bubbles and actively involving the young audience. Enter the elusive Talabalushi family; mischievous forest dwellers with a penchant for play and bug-munching, communicating through a symphony of song and dance. Adorned in costumes that incorporate leaves, twigs, green braided hairstyles and pig-like masks resembling tree bark, the family's unique connection to the forest is evident.  

As Tokkie, the youngest Talabalushi, climbs a tree on stage to witness his family at work, we delve into the fascinating world of forest scaring. Tokkie's sister Loshe (played by Ndonie Ntshiza) performs her first forest scare. Tokkie's parents, Mama Tok (Sanelisiwe Yekani) and Baba Tok (Siyambonga Mdubeki) explain the duties of the Talabalushis – guardians entrusted with protecting the forest by terrifying humans with tricks and pranks. "That is the Talabalushi way," declares Baba Tok, emphasising their role in maintaining the forest's ecological balance.

The production goes beyond the confines of the stage, transforming the entire theatre into a vibrant forest setting where the creatures engage in ball games and chase each other around. A mix of South African languages and spirited dance moves adds authenticity and humour to the narrative; a joyous experience for audiences seeking laughter from a proudly local cast and story. Azande Mkhungo, who plays Nkawu and Andile, says that the cast had to constantly find ways to get into a frame of mind to entertain children aged seven and up without being condescending. Mkhungo adds that the fun of the production was "imagining a world come to life from a script". 
Tweba the rabbit, played by Ngwedi Ramphele. Photo: Suzy Bernstein.

Playwright Megan Choritz shares her motivation to craft a distinctly South African narrative, drawing inspiration from folklore, including the Nguni myth of the Tokoloshe. However, the heart of The Terrified Talabalushi lies in the invented tale of woodland creatures mastering the art of scaring. Choritz desired to tell a story of a young individual overcoming fear, envisioning in Tokkie a creature meant to be scary itself but grappling with its own fears, too. The Talabalushi family are relatable characters – a concerned mother, a frustrated father, an irritated teenage sister and Tokkie.

The director and cast weaved diverse South African languages into the play, broadening its appeal and allowing for more moments of authentic connection among the audience, especially kids. "We are a country with language diversity as a heritage and birthright. It’s beautiful when there is flow from one language to another and everyone can understand enough of one or two languages, and then body language, emotion and expression are added to it," explains Choritz.

Choritz's involvement in theatre has been lifelong; starring in her first play at the tender age of seven. With the Kwasha Theatre Company and a brilliant team of creatives, her vision travelled from paper to stage. She commends the production as beautiful, funny, clever and original, expressing gratitude for the interpretation of her story by the talented cast and crew. Her hope for young audiences is not only to have fun watching The Terrified Talabalushi, although that's guaranteed, but also to understand that we are all special and that "sometimes it takes a while for us to be able to fulfil our calling or destiny".
Loshe the Talabalushi played by Ndonie Ntshiza. Photo: Suzy Bernstein.

Director Omphile Molusi thoroughly enjoyed this project, marked for him by the giving and collaborative spirit of the cast. "Our mission was always trying to find the best way to tell the story and for me, it was a blessing to have a cast of amazing, talented people with giving hearts," explains Molusi. During rehearsals, he and the cast worked to foster a playful environment where experimentation and exploration could flourish, ultimately contributing to a truly beautiful end production. 

Molusi adds that the final story was a collaborative effort with playwright Choritz. The original script underwent various phases, with the initial draft bearing a different title, but the shift to Talabalushi sparked a whole universe of new ideas. Thus, The Terrified Talabalushi was born. 
Rehearsal of The Terrified Talabalushi. Photo: Thandile Zwelibanzi. 

Choritz had written some songs for the play which Molusi felt were the heart of the script. Wanting a distinctly South African sound, Molusi shared ideas for each song with composer and music director Voline Charbelin, blending contemporary and traditional elements. "I wanted to bring it home," says Molusi. The music not only anchored the script but influenced the choreography, physical work and movements that helped shape the overall direction of the play. "There was always that constant talk around what the sound should do to the piece," Molusi explains. 

Drawing inspiration from the South African dance style pantsula, Molusi collaborated with choreographer Teresa Putimjela, who he counted as the best person to bring these ideas to life. The youthful South African sound is a mix of genres from kwaito to amapiano that plays up the movements of the Talabalushis. The choreography and score add to the production's authenticity, bringing the dynamic characters to life and contributing to what Molusi calls the overall "South African-ness of the play". 
Journey to the Knysna forest at The Market Theatre. Photo: The Market Theatre via Instagram. 

The original script always included Tokkie talking to the audience which was expanded to what it is now. According to Molusi, the character's fear and connection with invisible friends were magnified to involve the audience as part of the forest. "We wanted the audience to root for Tokkie and the way to do that was to invite them into his life. [We needed to soften it] and play with the kids to create a playful and inviting atmosphere," says Molusi. The production sought to engage the audience, making them an essential part of Tokkie's journey towards finding bravery. 

Fun reigns in The Terrified Talabalushi. In fact, Molusi says, "We want to have as much fun with you as possible." The atmosphere is one of enjoyment, while the theme is that of overcoming fears. This collaborative play masterfully merges music, movement and audience interaction to create a magical experience for all ages. The playful production process is evident in the final show, which will have you dancing along to the infectious songs and inviting dance sequences to match.

Head to the Market Theatre for The Terrified Talabalushi, showing until Sun, Dec 17, 2023. Book your tickets here


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