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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

CityPress - - The Good Guide -

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.

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