“Some memories never leave your bones, like salt in the sea; they become part of you. – and you carry them.” – Unknown
Every once in a blue moon you watch a theatre piece so timeless in its aesthetics and poetic content that it forces you to probe into what inspired the work. Tswalo, written and performed by Billy Langa and directed by Mahlatsi Mokgonyana is one such a performance. On the 20th of September 2017, at 14:45, I met with Langa outside of the Wits Theatre to talk about Tswalo, production that is fast becoming one of the most potent piece of our time.
Before we start, he begs me not to be too hectic and academic with my questions. What he doesn’t know is that I have no structured questions, I am simpl intrigued by the journey of Tswalo. Before we begin he says; kopa go ntsha metsi, which is a polite way of asking if he can go to the loo. The last time I heard anyone use that line was when my father was still alive. So, memory is already key in this conversation. I can already tell that this is going to be insightful.
To give context, I conducted this interview in an attempt to add more nuance to a review I planned to write. However, Langa’s responses were so illuminating that I simply could not deny you the content in its raw form. The transcription is a bit lengthy, however, I felt it was important not to edit anything out because the quality of the interview speaks to the complex process of making remarkable theatre. I also reckon that, it is about time we start documenting our artists’ journeys in their own authentic voices. This is how the conversation unfolded:
Zanele Madiba (ZM): Why Tswalo?
Billy langa (BL): In the beginning, it was Tswalo/Source. Then as we were going; we went Tswalo: A narrative Poem and then we ended up with Tswalo, because it talks about that whole idea of birth. But, Mahlatsi Mokgonyana, the director prefers to call it Genesis and every time when he explains it, he says, “it’s Tswalo loosely translated as Genesis.” So mathomo, the beginning, the birth of anything. That’s how we ended up with the name.
ZM: Why do you think the name keeps changing?
BL: In the beginning it was a movement piece. I was exploring just the source of life in everything, plants, animals, man and what life is. As the text came in it evolved, it spoke more to man; human being in relation to other lives that exists. We thought since it was written poetically, it’s a narrative in a poetic kinda format, so we went Tswalo: A narrative poem. We didn’t want to call it a play because we weren’t sure if it really is a play or just a poem that is performed in a heightened manner. Then we were like; it’s more than a poem because it speaks to people who are not poets as well. It translates in so many forms, maybe it is just Tswalo and it gives people room to really translate it. Some people think it’s letswalo, so they think the “le” was omitted. Some people think it’s tswalo ‘closing’ and others go straight to birth which also helps us to play with those ideas. Like the closing, the end of a thing, the fear in living and being born or giving birth. I guess the name interpretation gives a lot of meaning to the work and for us to explore with performatively.
ZM: What inspired you to write this piece?
BL: So the very, very, very first places of it, we were doing this food project called Rebirth with some ladies from the UK, they call themselves The Touch Stone Collaboration. We collaborated with them before I collaborated with Mahlatsi. They were talking about rebirth, the coming again. It was in 2012 and the entire world was celebrating Rebirth Day in December, the 12th and I thought maybe it’s the birth and not the second coming or the second birthing. Maybe, it is just birth. So, I was exploring the idea of being born, living and dying, and, is there life after dying? Maybe when we die, that is when we are born. That’s how the exploration of it, movement-wise came into being because of that collaboration with those ladies.
It was a collaboration with a few artists locally, visual artists, poets like Lebo Mashile and it was featured in that as a transporter, like connecting all the pieces and then we decided with Mahlatsi; let’s have it as a stand-alone piece that also speaks because people had a lot of questions around it. When it’s silent, people have many questions. We thought, let’s have a thing that explains the idea and the root of it. How far does birth, life and death go? When are we born? When do we die? And at which point are we living? We wrote it in two different cities, Mahlatsi was in Cape Town, I was here (Johannesburg). We wrote it over a period of 5 months. I was consulting with him and just checking if the pieces are suitable for the presentational style that we were going with and we ended up with this.
ZM: How did your collaboration with Mahlatsi Mokgoyana come about?
BL: So we are first friends, which makes it very easy.
ZM: Or difficult?
BL: Or difficult, you know…
ZM: But obviously you are going with easy?
BL: Of course, of course (chuckles). So, we were doing Antigone and directing that and at the same time, we were doing Egoli because we were cast in Egoli together and we had decided to do Antigone together. We were like, in everything that we do, we have other people involved. So, let’s have a thing of our own, just outside nyana and then he actually came up with the idea of, ‘let’s re-do Tswalo I have heard you talk about it, it sounds like a nice, deep piece’ and I was like, yoh! that’s such a difficult thing. I always get nervous about performing it because I don’t know if people get it. He was like, ‘let’s write. Let’s have you write the poetry that you say you are passionate about, write it and let’s have it performed in body and poem.’ And, we went for it really.
ZM: So it became different from the one you initially wrote for the Food Project?
BL: Yes, it morphed into another thing but really also going through the idea of birth, life and death. We started going through the phases of those, the phase of birth and what that is and into personal narratives as well. So, we collected from our own stories. Mostly, my own story and into the philosophical ideas of what life is. There is existentialist questions, who are we? Why are we here? And with me and my abrupt and intense memory of thinking or remembering that I remember about the day I was born. We found it interesting to share that idea of the travelling of time. How far back do we go when we think about birth? Is it an experience our parents go through alone? Why do we cry, if we do? What experiences are we going through and how far back can we remember? Maybe the memory is in the bones and that’s where we need to go into.
ZM: Memory sounds like an important theme for Tswalo, did you consult your parents?
BL: Not yet.
ZM: So, it is just you basing everything on your own memory?
BL: It’s just me, based on my memory. My dad hasn’t seen it. I am always nervous even nou and I’m like eish, I keep telling him, ‘you must come see this show’ and he’s like ‘I’m gonna come, I’m gonna come’ but he doesn’t find the time to do that. I think he is not ready also.
ZM: Did you tell your dad about the kinds of themes you are exploring?
BL: Yes. I told him that when you know me; it’s hyper personal and you will know the points that will touch you and you will be touched, but people will not gather the ones that are very sensitive for us as a family. So, it’s mostly from personal memory, from what I remember and what we went through as a family.
ZM: You make a lot of spiritual references, how much of your own spirituality influenced the piece?
BL: I think, almost everything. Almost 100% almost, because a lot of the stuff is well researched scientific-wise and just having the dialogue between Science and spirit, and, the air and breath and spirit and what the difference is in all of that. How my religious background teaches us as well; that moya ke moya. If we translate it in English, moya which is breath which is air is spirit, ke moya. I took a lot from those translations as well as on the play of language and how spiritual our language really is and how it sounds when it is translated. It really sounds hyper deep, hyper poetic but these are the normal things we say daily. Batho ba tshwara ke moya.
ZM: Ke diphaephae?
BL: Ke diphaephae! Batho ba tshwara ke diphaephae and it’s not a foreign idea to us and when you ask them, they will tell you of worlds that feels like it’s imagination. So, a lot of the inspiration sources from that, from the idea of the imagination and what language gives out when we translate. What we know comes out as the hyper imagination. Something that looks unreal. So back to the question, a lot of it is very spiritual. It is influenced by that (chuckles), most of it really, everything is spiritual!
ZM: Earlier you mentioned Science and research, how important was research for this work?
BL: It was the main thing really because we did not want the piece to feel like it’s only one-sided or that it is talking to a certain group of people. We wanted to explore the ideas of existence throughout. Almost throughout because we didn’t do all of them but I think we’ve captured almost the known ideas. We went into the idea of seven circles making the Seed of Life, the big bang, the Genesis from the bible, how our ancestors described this and found a link that really talks to one thing. It’s all not tangible but we know it and maybe the answers is that we remember it as well. Like, it’s all in memory. All of it, from a very Christian perspective when we speak of the beginning, of genesis; you get to re-live a part of you and get involved in the story because you’re seeing the similarities. Also, the ones who are about the big bang, they get to hear words like, ‘the big bang’ which makes them go ‘oh yeah!’ So all of that research was put into one little bottle that makes it tangible and seem spiritual, and, it is spiritual because all of those are spiritual realms whether we believe it or not.
ZM: Why do you use a blanket as the only prop?
BL: So, we bought a lot of props for the show. We had a magnifying glass, penny whistle, a globe-like-a-map. We wanted to play with the idea of a traveler in the dessert who keeps meeting these stories along the way. We realised that it’s a lot really. Mahlatsi came up with the idea that we should find a blanket, lets see if we put into a blanket all that we have and we thought mapara. Is it mapara or mampara?
BL: Tonkana! And we were like yeah. We got it and it was too big and we cut it in the middle. Ga re ithinta daarso, it started to give this dribs and drabs like…this is a cool character. We started just playing with it really. With the poems like juxtaposition and not interpreting the poems with the blanket and some gestures that are familiar, like birth and babies. You know how we carry babies on our back with a blanket, also the womb in setso ba e bitsa kobo. So, the poetry of it kinda came to us when we wanted to strip down the piece to almost a minimum and we were left with kobo ya tonkana. Le teng, there are references to initiation schools, there are some songs tsa dikoma and female initiation schools. So, the blanket kind of covered the whole thing, it made it easy. It was from a lot to nothing, almost nothing.
ZM: Tswalo is essentially a love story. You are retelling a story of how your parents met. We tend to think of romance as this Western idea. Did the ideal of black love influence how you told the story?
BL: (blushes) I think it’s more of what I think should happen and what I feel is happening but it’s just not highlighted. The sensitivity that we have as men, as black men is not explored. It’s a space that we don’t tap into. Even ourselves, we don’t allow ourselves to go into that but we are hopeless romantics and our ladies do know shame. But, because of these ideas from the West, we might have forgotten how it really felt go shelwa. It’s about sheling, ke ho shela man! So my whole analysis on love has always been that love is beyond time. So even the hate that exists in us which is the thing that we are programmed to act on first before love. We’ve kinda forgotten how it feels to love and not to be loved but to give it. We always want to receive it and not give it and unaware-ly so. In our existence, we feel we are giving love because we are living. The idea of giving love to wife, to child, to mate, it makes a huge difference in feeling, in how you receive the world and also purpose, because suddenly you’re worth something because you’re receiving the love and giving it. You’re also seeing the receiver really appreciating it.
When we were writing it because it’s loose and very poetic, we were like eish, we must write an ode to a girl. A celebration towards a lady, the lady being the bearer of the child and that men were involved in the pregnancy. They are part of the journey of a woman’s pregnancy and sharing their experiences as pregnant men. That exploration comes out as loving and very warm and very charming and a bit imaginary. In the piece, he says, I remember the first image of you very well. He says he drew her face, she was never there really, he created her for their existence together. Things like love at first sight; where you suddenly see the possibilities of your entire life and your mission ke go mo shela. So the idea of go shela kinda informed how much we forgotten about go shela. Even in this culture ga re sa shela joe!
ZM: It’s done, our generation just slides into the DMs.
BL: Just slide into the DMs and say hi. That kind of fades away the truth of the love that we have for one another because we fear to experience it. To go through the difficulty of it because she might just say no after having gone all out with everything. With all the poems and all the things and she says no. So, all those fears are clouding the idea of what our traditional love is and the relationship between a man and woman and their reason for being together in that space.
ZM: Tswalo is told through a man’s lens, your mother is not very present. Her character is the receiver of love but we don’t get a strong sense of her journey, was that an attempt to re-write black masculinity?
BL: That is the whole idea really, to not fear being called soft. To do what you have to do as a man. To please your woman because you want to please her; that we are not abusing our relationship with the woman. We wanna be in a relationship with her and that you can really learn how to be a good man. Just shift your way of thinking about a woman and then you get to really experience her as well and her warmth. So, that’s the main thing. I get it all the time. You know sometimes like: bo Billy ba soft jwang ba bhora ho bhora. And, in my head and I’m like, flip that was said by a woman. She said, I’m soft because I’m loving and maybe that’s not what she wants to experience, that tender side. She wants to see the hard dude. It’s very jarring in my head but also, I’m realising as well the balance of the hardness and the tender-nature of being male because we were born of woman like it or not.
So, we do have the experiences of our mothers. We know how they want to feel, maybe that’s where we should go; into that memory of what my mother wants to feel. And all these gangsters outchea, they do things and show love to their mothers and that relationship because you know how your mother wants to feel about you and what they want to think of you; the secrets that we keep from them so that they don’t see us differently. Maybe that is a space to explore more with regards to men in relation to women, sons in relation to their mothers, and then in relation to their wives and daughters and partners. We know what women want, we are just afraid of seeming like them or becoming almost like them because it’s called weak which, is a thing that we are also exploring, the feminine aspect of the Egyptian times, the strong women who led wars and countries and states. The women led and we allowed because we were fine with it. It was never about the competition between us. It was about duty and how we were serving the state and the state of being as well that balance is sustained because everyone knows what they have to do for life to progress. We are reclaiming that idea of black men in relation to black women and women generally. We are loving men and we know it. It is just a painful thing to go through, to love can be very painful because you don’t know what you gonna get.
ZM: Interesting take, so where to from here with Tswalo?
BL: So we are publishing in November.
ZM: Nice! I feel like that’s a scoop for my blog (hashtag BREAKING news!).
BL: It’s a scoop lady (chuckles). So, end of November we will be publishing the book. Also, what we realised in the writing of it and in the conversations we are having with people is that it’s work in progress. The publishing of it now doesn’t mean that this is the final written material of it. It keeps on piling, new works come in that talk to the idea of living and serving a purpose that we somehow want to serve. That’s another phase of it and we are hoping for it to travel really, for the world to witness the black love, the African love and the idea of two languages in one. That’s a thing that we are exploring performatively, that it does not feel like when the performer changes from Sepedi to English, it’s two different things. It should feel like it’s one harmonious language that is flowing out of the person.
One of the reason why we went spiritually is because we all breathe the same air. It comes out differently that we are inquiring about the language of performance for everyone. Whether you’re in a performance space or theatre space or you’re in the corporate world, you really receive the work from a gut space, a space of feeling than an intellectual analysis. So that you really engage with the work personally and more spiritually and question further, so that we write further.
Tswalo is written and performed by Billy Langa
Directed by Mahlatsi Mokgonyana
Music/Sound Score composition by John Withers
Catch Tswalo in Johannesburg at the So So1o Festival, Wits Amphitheatre, 30 September @ 3:30pm and 1 October @ 3:30pm
Cape Town Fringe, Theatre Arts Admin Collective, 2 – 3 October @ 8pm and 4 October @ 6pm