type of listener – an active, empathetic listener. It’s all about them, not about you. Most people we worked with were so vulnerable. It had never been about them. That’s probably why they are users in the first place.”
After training, the actors decamped to their own neighbourhoods in Umlazi and KwaMashu, and returned two months later with notebooks laden with detailed research.
“Dylan calls them intuitive sociologists,” says Coppen. “Nobody could have got that level of access.”
“Before, I thought all whoonga addicts were just criminals – people who would mug you and steal your phone,” says Mthombeni. “So imagine, now I had to approach these people and talk to them ... You need to think about how you approach the users in a respectful manner.”
She says that, in a way, you are asking the user to undress in front of you in telling their story.
“And then you realise these people have never been heard and are crying out for attention,” she says. “They are so relieved that they can pour out their problems to you.”
Msomi says that the users respected that the actors came to them in a “neutral way”.
“They want to stop smoking whoonga. They say they don’t know how,” he says. “They say the pain from the withdrawal, known as ‘arosta’, is so terrible they have to keep smoking.”
It is most commonly the physically addictive opiate heroin, which is part of the whoonga “recipe”, that makes it so hard to kick.
“These people have a problem that needs to be supported, not punished,” says Msomi.
Ngcobo Cele from The Big Brotherhood says that the more whoonga users are judged, the more they feel as though they’re on the outside of society.
“One guy I met was being bullied at school and then an older boy stood up for him. The older boy was smoking whoonga, so the younger boy started to impress the older boy. He was thinking: if I have this guy on my side, I won’t be bullied at school. A lot of it is all wrapped up in trying to be a hard man in the township, someone who commands respect.”
The Playhouse run of Ulwembu last month also functioned as part of the research. “It takes in everything as it goes along and changes,” says Coppen.
After every performance, the audience is encouraged to remain behind in a facilitated discussion.
It is loaded with users, people from rehabilitation centres, police, social workers, the homeless, sex workers, family members and former addicts.
The conversations are lively and poignant, and loaded with testimony and sharing.
“They have a common reference point in the play,” says Coppen. “They are talking about the characters, not about each other. It takes away the personal. It’s about a deeper listening.”
He tells of a previous performance where a senior police leader protested about a scene where the police make the users eat their drugs when they are caught. A whole group of users in the audience stood up and testified, one after the other, about how it had happened to them.
After one performance, a 10-year-old street child speaks about how she is glad the mother character in the play did not give up on her son. The part that is implied, but remains unsaid about her own story, is heartbreaking for many.
Another schoolteacher testifies how 12 kids in his class are using whoonga, and five are running the drug. To the cast, he says: “We need you desperately.” Sam Pillay, head of the Chatsworth Anti-Drug Forum, says the play represents what he sees on the streets every day. He began fighting the rise of the designer drug “sugars” in his neighbourhood in 2005 and has been warning city officials about the extent of the problem for years.
Professor Monique Marx from the Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology says they are trying to show government that it is cost-effective to roll out opiatereplacement therapy, such as methadone. She believes this should be coupled with the decriminalisation of the drug, a far better option than pushing whoonga underground.
“Support, don’t punish,” she says, summing up her approach.
Dr Lochan Naidoo, a Durban-based addiction consultant in the audience, says that by the time public health facilities implement methadone treatment for users, it will be too late, as happened with the roll-out of antiretrovirals.
A middle-aged woman a few weeks out of jail after a nine-year drug conviction warmly thanks the cast and tells Cele, who plays Andile, a whoonga runner and user in the play, that she saw herself in him. “I was in tears here,” she says. “I was in that story.” “Everyone has witnessed something together,” says McGarry. “And you have created a safe space for sharing.”
In its essence, theirs is a continuation of South Africa’s vibrant protest-theatre tradition. The difficulty of black life is unpacked on stage to prompt social change.
At one point over the four days I spend with the cast of Ulwembu, I am sitting in The Playhouse foyer waiting for McGarry, who ran across the road to get some bean curries for lunch.
He returned with the story of how a young guy from the street followed him into the takeaway joint and wanted to know more about the “whoonga play” that was on. McGarry told the young man he was involved and could get him a ticket.
As we sit eating our curries in the foyer, the young man approaches to confirm his seat and thank McGarry.
It’s clear that whoonga is all around us. We are all caught up in its web. Ulwembu will start the next stage of its run in July in
Durban, playing to schools and communities
UP IN SMOKE A man smokes nyoape in Polokwane. SA’s youth is plagued b y the highly addictive drug
EMPATHETIC EAR Neil Coppen, the award-winning director of Ulwembu