Can theatre change lives? Lloyd Gedye spends time with the creators of an extraordinary new play, Ulwembu, born of the life stories of whoonga (nyaope) users in KwaZulu-Natal communities. He comes away believing in the power of the stage
hey died in front of my eyes,” says Phumlani Ngubane as we sit in the foyer of the Durban Playhouse’s Loft Theatre.
“They were shot. They stole from a bad person who hunted them down. They were murdered right in front of my eyes ... My heart is pained, even now.”
His colleague Zenzo Msomi nods solemnly as Ngubane speaks and then adds: “We were like family with them. They stole from the wrong house.”
Actors Ngubane and Msomi are part of a KwaMashu theatre collective called The Big Brotherhood, and on the day we sat down to chat in mid-April, they were in the middle of a run of their play Ulwembu (Spider) at the Loft Theatre.
The play’s focus is the scourge of whoonga – or wunga, or nyaope, as it is known in other parts of the country.
The play is based on more than two years of deep research and the couple who were murdered were Ngubane’s landlady and her boyfriend, both whoonga users.
“Some people in my community turned against me, as I was associated with the users,” says Ngubane. “They felt like I was defending them.”
Ulwembu is a gritty urban nightmare, a place where characters mostly on the margins of society eke out lives, rather than live them.
It is a story about addiction, featuring drug users, runners and dealers, desperate mothers, absent fathers, helpless and vindictive police, overworked social workers, enraged communities, fearless xenophobes and foreign nationals living in fear.
It effortlessly illustrates how everyone in a community is drawn into the web of whoonga.
Large ropes pulled by the whole cast to contort around the users as they go into withdrawal represent this web.
At R25 a hit, whoonga is one of the cheapest drugs around and, for dealers, it’s a big-money industry.
The Big Brotherhood’s research suggests that a user can spend up to R150 a day. So a single user can be worth R700 a week to a dealer – R33 600 a year.
“There is huge demand and prices are going up,” says Big Brotherhood member Vumani Khumalo.
Msomi says 90% of the users they interviewed said they wanted out.
“The more we spoke to the users, the more we could see that they were just people who were trapped.”
Users and former users who have seen the play maintain that it is incredibly realistic in painting a picture of addiction. But Ulwembu is doing more than that. It is asking us to face up to the realities that this is a community problem, and that it is going to require smart minds and a group effort to fix.
“Who do you blame?” asks actress Mpume Mthombeni, who plays a user’s mother in Ulwembu. “It’s so easy to wash your hands, but what do we do with all this blame? This problem is all of ours.”
The story of Ulwembu goes back a few years, to May 2014 when award-winning Durban playwright Neil Coppen was heading a workshop with community-theatre participants from KwaZulu-Natal.
He asked them to write lists of social issues that they felt young writers should be confronting in their work. The number one issue on everyone’s list was whoonga. “I had seen the whoonga problem mushrooming and taking over the city,” says Coppen. “I saw the way the media was reporting it, as a zombie apocalypse – people in rags around drums of fire – the nightmare of the suburbs ... We were dehumanising the users by creating these monster myths,” he told me.
During the workshop, then 22-year-old Phumzile Ndlovu shared a story about her cousin Jabulo, who had come to stay with them in Umlazi’s D Section. He soon became hooked on whoonga and was dealing the drug too.
Her family, under threat from the community, had to throw him out and he relocated to Albert Park. He was addicted to whoonga for five years before he passed away at the age of 25.
Driven by fears that his spirit would come back to harm the family, his corpse was beaten with sticks and then taken back to Albert Park, where whoonga was sprinkled on his lips and into his grave. The act was performed so that he could find peace. Coppen says it was this story that first lit the spark of what would become Ulwembu. After the workshop, he began to research the whoonga problem.