A young South African playwright has risen from the poverty and violence of a Johannesburg township to receive one of her country’s most prestigious theatre awards. Ntshieng Mokgoro is the 2009 winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Drama. The 35-year-old mother of three won for her play, The Olive Tree. It tells the story of several generations of women and the harm they inflict on one another. But ultimately, it’s a tale of redemption and reconciliation.
The plush South African State Theatre, in the country’s capital, Tshwane (formerly Pretoria), couldn’t be further away from the world Mokgoro inhabits. Despite her recent success, the ebullient young woman continues to live in Alexandra, an impoverished, strife-ridden township near Johannesburg.
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“People now expect me to move away from my roots, to a better, safer area. But no way,” says Mokgoro. “Most of my work is inspired by the township where I come from. A whole lot is happening there…good things and bad things.”
And so Mokgoro writes about filthy street children, their bare feet hardened to crusts, happy to be booting a soccer ball among tumbledown shacks; about the woman with the empty eyes selling chicken intestines in the sun under a faded tarpaulin on a dusty corner; about the teenage girl whose screams sever the night as she’s gang-raped by tsotsis (criminals).
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The playwright’s aim is to become established in professional theatre and to learn “as much as possible.” She says, “My philosophy is – get as much knowledge as you can, and then take it back to the community.”
She laments that “drama is dying in the townships.” Writers and actors there don’t have support in terms of skills and funding; there are no theatres being built, no workshops being held.
“There are lots of talented actors and aspiring directors in places like Alexandra, but they have no access at all to opportunities to break into professional theatre. They are just dumping theatre and throwing their talent away, trying to get other jobs,” Mokgoro says.
She’s convinced that this is leading to “untold harm” to South African culture.
“We are going to lose interesting young people who’ve got exciting, culture-defining stories to share with the rest of the country – if not internationally,” Mokgoro says.
Breaking the cycle of abuse
In the writer’s words, The Olive Tree is about four generations of women, “each one carrying the sins of their mothers forward into their own lives. These are women who do not love themselves.”
On the stage, various stories unfold – courtesy of a cast of up-and-coming South African actors – under the branches of an olive tree.
“The olive tree is a tree meant for peace – when we’re fighting and I give you an olive branch, it shows, ‘Sure guy, let’s forget about (all) that (fighting),’” Mokgoro explains. “Olives are also symbols of good health and wealth, and they produce so much fruit and olive oil and all of that. In the Bible, the more olive trees a man had, the richer he was.”
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In the play, Makhosi suffers a brutal childhood at the hands of her misguided mother. Later, Makhosi herself gives birth to a daughter, Babylon. Makhosi fights to keep Babylon on a righteous path – with tragic consequences.
Makhosi is eventually left with the task of bringing up her granddaughter, Naledi, who looks as if she will repeat the sins of her mother…. In The Olive Tree, Makhosi tries to break the cycle of abuse.
“I celebrate the power of women – the way they support and nurture one another – but I also explore their destructive side, the way women break one another down,” Mokgoro says. “I see these women that have been hating each other – after all those dark years of secrets and deceit, and at the end of the day they must forgive each other.”
And what better place for forgiveness than under an olive tree, the tree of peace, reconciliation, prosperity and purity.
Critics acknowledge that the skill with which Mokgoro has presented The Olive Tree is amazing – given that she has no formal training in drama. She completed high school and then worked in a library. There, part of her job was to read to pupils.
“I would usually ask them to dramatize what we read, and I think that’s where I realized that I’ve got a talent in theatre, drama…. I became passionate about it!” Mokgoro says. She joined a community theatre group, writing and acting in numerous productions with themes as diverse as love, violence against children and women, crime and racism.
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But it’s the theme of reconciliation, in a country still enduring the ravaging after-effects of apartheid, to which she finds herself constantly returning.
“Whether you have wronged or you have been wronged, you still need to forgive yourself. And then you are able to love. And once you love, it’s easy for you to reconcile and accept people as people,” Mokgoro declares.
She’s convinced that her work in Alexandra “forced South Africa’s artistic directors and the (theatre) executives to really recognize me.” Mokgoro continues, “I am here to stay, and they have to listen to me because I am bringing raw talent and a fresh, new approach into the industry, and this is what this industry needs at the moment.”
Cultural rituals and spirituality
Mokgoro’s also written extensively about culture.
“Some of the rituals, traditions and cultures (in South Africa) are so oppressive – especially to women. People are still being forced to perform rituals that they don’t even understand and can’t fight against. For some women, if your in-laws say you have to do something, you have to do it. I feel that this is a new era, and people should have a choice whether or not to follow certain so-called cultural practices,” she says.
Mokgoro’s adamant, though, that she’s not “preaching” right or wrong. “It has to be by choice. If you feel you want to get into a (polygamous) marriage, it’s up to you. (But) it doesn’t have to be forced (on you).”
She has focused on spirituality, as well. She says she believes in God but yet still sometimes feels “trapped.”
Mokgoro’s culture demands that she acknowledge the presence of the spirits of her dead ancestors as intermediaries between herself and God. But sometimes, she discloses, she doubts the ancestors’ existence.
“It’s tough in this industry,” Mokgoro sighs, “especially when you work with people who have studied drama at the best schools in the world and they know their stuff, and there you sit with your small background in community theatre…. I sometimes feel out of my depth.”
Then, Mokgoro brightens up, saying, “On the other hand, I know so much more about some facets of life – like life in a township – that they’ll never know. So we all learn from one another.”
She acknowledges, though, that the harsh township experience “will only take me so far. I want to develop. I dream of studying drama at university. That would be an achievement for me,” Mokgoro says, ignoring the fact that she’s already defied immense odds and achieved so much.
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