Red Earth Revisited Reviews

A play of power and beliefs

Cue Magazine Sunday, 05 July 2015 15:45 Written by Cujo

The cast of Red Earth Revisited stand wrapped in orange blankets at the door, welcoming the audience into the theatre. Once the audience settles down, the cast break into a song about Nongqawuse, their melodious voices harmoniously blending together. Behind them is the lay-out of a rural Xhosa home with cow skins covering the floor. This is a world-class production, sponsored by the Dutch Embassy and written and directed by the Dutch team of Onny Huisink and Saskia Janse.

The duo brings this vivid story to life on stage using a mixture of an excellent cast, music and outstanding puppetry. Red Earth Revisited tells the legendary story of Nongqawuse, the young Xhosa girl whose prophecy led to the slaughter of cattle, burning of crops and the eventual death of more than 40 000 members of her tribe.
The production comes back to the South African stage after a ten-year absence, and now features a new cast and a revised format. Nongqawuse was an orphaned girl, raised by a strict uncle, who had a vivid imagination from a young age. At 15, she believed her ancestors told her that if they sacrificed crops and cattle he would drive the intrusive white settlers into the sea.
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Sabelo Khoza in Red Earth Revisited Photo: CuePix/ Tama ni Chithambo


As the characters’ cattle keep dying from a mysterious illness, the people come to believe Nongqawuse’s prophecy. Some resist killing their cattle and, soon, the people are divided into believers and non-believers. The nonbelievers are eventually killed or chased away from the village.

The audience seem entranced as the eight cast actors retell this 19th century Xhosa story in an innovative way through performance. No part of the production has been overlooked, from the sound birds make when they are foraging, to the games young boys play.

The multinational cast use puppets and song, subtly hinting at the power relations present in their unique retelling of the story.

The play is presented by Speeltheater Holland Studio with support from Assitej South Africa, whose aim is to transform children’s lives using theatre. They will tour the Eastern Cape after festival, followed by an international tour to The Netherlands and Belgium. See tour here.

Puppets add twist to Xhosa storytelling

By ZISANDA NKONKOBE on July 6, 2015 in The Daily Dispatch

The centuries-old art of Xhosa storytelling has been brought alive by two new plays making their début at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year – both with an exciting new twist of using puppets. Armed with miniature sets and strong narration, crew members of both Red Earth Revisited and Qhawe use lifelike puppets to act out the stories.

Red Earth Revisited tells the story of young Xhosa prophetess Nonqawuse, whose prophesy is said to have led to the downfall of the Xhosa nation in the Eastern Cape. According to the history books, the invasion of the British had left people weak with no positive hope for the future. This was until a young girl returned home from the river one day saying the ancestors had visited her and delivered a message. She was to tell her people to kill and burn all their cattle and crops, as riches bigger than anything they had ever imagined were coming. Many believed, with the non-believers slaughtered or forced to flee to safety.

Though this is the version that has largely been documented in history books, folklore tells a slightly different story. The play brings the different versions together, leaving it up to the audience to decide what they believe.

Relying on an eight-man crew, each armed with a puppet, the play tells of a time when the Xhosa nation lived on the rolling hills and valleys dotting the countryside, when their houses were round and they painted their faces white with clay.

Writer Saskia Janse, from the Dutch Puppet Theatre Company, said the inspiration to write the play had come from one of the crew members who had contacted her, telling her about a dream to produce a play based on a piece of local history.

“His aim was to tell the Xhosa people a story about their own because he said many didn’t know their own history,” she said. “When I arrived, the first thing I did was to travel across the Eastern Cape speaking with people because I wanted to make this play as authentic as possible.”

The use of puppets, Janse explained, provided them more freedom as puppets often made better actors than humans. “A puppet can travel across the world in a single scene on the stage but to set that up for an actor would not be so easy. Also, during a play it’s chaotic and confusing to have too many people on the stage,” said Janse.