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.