Young director tells powerful SA stories
Among Prince Lamla’s work are protest plays of the ’80s reimagined for the born-free generation, writes Christina Kennedy
AS A teenager growing up in rural QwaQwa, Prince Lamla quickly learnt how to make theatrical alchemy with little more than a few committed actors and a solid story. It’s a skill that has stood the current Standard Bank Young Artist for drama in good stead, enabling him to burrow down to the core of a story without needing props and frippery.
Lamla, 31, is the second consecutive director — and the second in a row with a royal moniker — to receive the Standard Bank Young Artist accolade, after Princess Mhlongo last year.
The award underscores the pressing need for visionary young directors and playwrights in the country’s arts sector, which often places more emphasis on developing actors than those behind the scenes.
“This award is great,” Lamla says. “It kills the stigma that you need to be old to be a director … or a South African president!”
The quietly assertive young director has an open and accommodating manner that invites collaboration among his players, leading to such gems as last year’s reimagining of protest play Woza Albert! by Percy Mtwa, Barney Simon and Mbongeni Ngema. It played to packed houses at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, prior to a successful stint on the Edinburgh Fringe. “I thought: how do I make the born-frees relate to it? I didn’t look at it as an apartheid story, but as a human story, with parallels drawn between the eras of apartheid and democracy. Even now, we are still looking for that Morena (Jesus in the play) — you can be your own Morena, or leader, in your own space.”
His next theatrical venture, which will premiere at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in June, is Ngema’s Asinamali!, which was nominated for a Tony Award in 1987. Centring on five male prisoners, the play was described by the Chicago Tribune as a “theatrical poem” about the injustices and inhumanity of the apartheid system. The Zulu word “asinamali” literally means: “We have no money”.
Like Woza Albert!, Lamla plans to give the play a fresh coat of paint while remaining reverent to the original. “Asinamali! is hardcore but true. When you have no money, you ask yourself questions: what are you doing right or wrong in the world if you’re not successful, be it materially or spiritually? I want people to question themselves and do soulsearching. Theatre should help us to be introspective.”
It’s interesting that Lamla has struck gold revisiting classic 1980s protest plays, considering that he would have been a mere nipper when they were first staged. But he can relate to apartheid’s lingering legacy, having not had the easiest time growing up as the firstborn of four sons.
Born on June 16 — “a hectic date” — he was raised in the former Bantustan of QwaQwa in the Free State. His teacher mother became the household breadwinner when his father went back to school to obtain his matric at 42. This meant that the young Prince was shuttled between his family home and his aunt in Johannesburg, and had to repeat a year at high school.
But these hardships proved instrumental in shaping his life and career course, not to mention his character. At home in QwaQwa, friends encouraged him to join their youth club, introducing the teen to the magic and mystique of theatre. “I’d never seen any theatre before; I didn’t know anything about it. I was like a newborn baby learning how to crawl.”
Where I come from, I didn’t grow up surrounded by glamour. I don’t need fancy sets and props. It’s all about the story
He soon broke away to form his own theatre group. “I was a very reserved dude, who would hold back for fear of saying something wrong or hurting someone, but here I’d found a place where I could really express myself. Through the platform of that youth club, I started opening up and seeing what was special about me. But it also helped me to be more honest and humble, and to discover that life’s not just about me, it’s about others. It was a matter of destiny — I believe in that.”
In 1999, Mncedisi Shabangu came to QwaQwa, scouting for community theatre groups to take part in the Market Theatre Laboratory’s Zwakala Festival. It was a fateful meeting that would see Lamla’s and Shabangu’s paths cross frequently in the future. Shabangu, who won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for drama in 2004, hails from Ka-Nyamazane, in Mpumalanga, and also knows the value of local stories that resonate beyond the confines of their communities.
“Mncedisi opened our minds, in fact, he opened a can of worms!” says Lamla. For this amateur thespian from the sticks, experiencing the worldrenowned Market Theatre was like arriving in an artistic Shangri-La. “I thought: ‘Wow! One day I’m gonna be part of this whole set-up’ — jokingly, of course.”
Shabangu convinced Lamla that theatre was his calling. Lamla enrolled at the Market Theatre Lab — “I lied to them to get in, telling them my parents would pay.… I still owe the Lab those fees. Many of us do!”
Lamla had his heart set on becoming an actor, “but I never got one job”. Dejected, he returned to QwaQwa and teamed up with his good friend, the late Ohentse Bodibe, going back to basics in community theatre. And the muse returned, with a magnificent flourish.
The company workshopped Coal Yard, an original Southern Sotho work, which combined mime, physical theatre and dialogue. It won first prize at the Zwakala Festival and had a full run at the Market. Lamla had finally found his niche — but as a director, not an actor. “I realised I had never felt comfortable being directed — I would see things the director wouldn’t see. A story dictates itself to actors and directors; we just make sure we put all the puzzle pieces in place.”
His natural ability to listen was an asset — earning trust without being overbearing — and he learnt to welcome constructive advice instead of being precious about his work.
“I’m clear about the vision I have (for a work), but smaller things help. I make sure I have space for others to give their ideas, that’s the way I work. I believe in teamwork, as long as you as the driver don’t lose focus or get derailed.”
He seized the golden opportunity to be an assistant director at Live Theatre in Newcastle, in the UK, and then it was back to SA to work with the Sibikwa Arts Centre, igniting their storytelling with an infusion of physicality.
“Community theatre is one of the best tools to get people into theatres. It’s all about exposure, at the end of the day. Where I come from, I didn’t grow up surrounded by glamour. I don’t need fancy sets and props. It’s all about the story.”
He worked on Helen Iskander’s adaptation of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and, last year, scored his major career breakthrough with Woza Albert! — starring Mncedisi Shabangu.
Lamla may be young, but he’s a thinker: he deliberates and is methodical in his actions. But he also wants to cajole his audiences into thinking, reeling in new generations of theatregoers using the raw power of unadorned storytelling.