Part of the inherent challenge for Noel Jordan and the Imaginate team when putting together their annual Edinburgh International Children's Festival is their very diverse potential audience: after all, the theatrical needs of toddlers and pre-school children can hardly be more different than those for young adults. Nevertheless, South African production Mbuzeni – credited as being for 12+ years – seemed to attract a largely adult audience for its evening performance, which is arguably a shame. Not because it failed to match the expectations of such an audience: quite the opposite.

Putuma's focus on the imaginative lives of four young orphan girls is both hugely effective and wonderfully affective.

The play – written and directed by the acclaimed young South African poet and playwright Koleka Putuma might have come in at under an hour, but is a concentrated delight of young black female voices singing, music and expressing themselves in the poetic tonal clicking language of Xhosa. Putuma’s focus on the imaginative lives of four young orphan girls, who regularly sneak into the local graveyard to play out their obsessions with burials, is both hugely effective and wonderfully affective. More teenagers should definitely see it.

The staging is simple enough: a few blocks outlining locations, and a mixture of lighting and choreography signalling their movement around their own small world, alone and largely independent of the local "middle of nowhere" community which largely distrusts and rejects them. Putuma's ensemble cast – Thumeka Mzayiya, Awethu Hleli, Sisipho Mbopa and Nolufefe Ntshuntshe – superbly embody the physicality of young children, and yet chillingly can easily switch into representing both the old women of the village and the crow-like supernatural crones which inhabit their constantly morbid dreams. No wonder one eventually asks: "Can we take a break from funerals?"

Putuma's script is both humorous and disturbing—from the young girls' idiosyncratic ideas of what Heaven is like (involving the likes of trifle, sunglasses, and "quiet") to their largely failed attempt to get help when they need it. To be honest, the plot's conclusion is by no means surprising, but the way in which the story affects the characters – who respond with a sudden maturity, very much belying their age – is undoubtedly moving and memorable.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

Multiple Venues


Dundee Rep Theatre / Macrobert Arts Centre

The Yellow on the Broom

Underbelly, Bristo Square

Tom Neenan: It's Always Infinity

Assembly George Square Studios

Police Cops in Space

Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Rik Carranza: Still a Fan

Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre





The Blurb

Mbuzeni (the act of asking for an answer from God) tells the story of four orphan girls, their sisterhood, and their fixation with burials. The story takes place in a tiny remote South African village where the only cemetery that exists separates the villagers from the orphans. In this community there are rules and regulations for burials which are strictly observed and strongly enforced, rules which the villagers have observed and ones the girls continue to break when they play "burials" at the gravesite. Their defiance will come at a price… From one of South Africa's most acclaimed young black female voices, comes a lyrical tale about sisterhood and friendship, infused with dark humour. With singing, music, poetry and the tonal clicking language of Xhosa, Mbuzeni explores obsession in the lives of four young girls. Part of the Edinburgh International Children's Festival. Recommended age: 12+