Rust Co-operative (South Africa) | Ostade A’dam, Amsterdam (Amsterdam Fringe 2014)

Siembamba addresses the stark and uncomfortable issue and relationship between the South African Black nannies and the rich white children they’ve left their own families to look after. Interchanging between ‘lecture style’ natural history and a dialogue between a black nanny and her young white ‘child’, several themes and reflections are thrown at the audience to largely great effect, namely the dynamic of being a part of the family and simultaneously an outsider.

Lesoko Seabe personifies Mother Nature as a forgotten and broken being, quietly lamenting the way humanity has left her behind. She also voices those involved in the Black ‘nanny’ situation; mainly as the nanny, but also as the nanny’s daughter and interestingly the white mother. Nieke Lombard plays the young white girl, whose confusion and resentment at the situation gives her the fierce resolve when giving a ‘lecture’ style presentation about the creation of the world (albeit as a virtually different character.) It’s a great moment in the performance and she jumps between English and Afrikaans delivering the speech at top speed. However this and other moments risk becoming too preachy, and the otherwise great writing keeps returning to the notion that ‘the highest evolved organism has broken a law of nature by ascribing status and perpetuating racial/ethnic difference.’ After the third time it got a bit dull. This state-the-obvious debate doesn’t reflect the general allusions of the piece.

Generally the text works through suggestion and language flowing between fire and calm, allowing the relationship to act as the harsh realism and the poetry for reflection. Staging the white mother and the black daughter adds depth for the piece revealing the expanse of this social issue. In this way it seemingly avoids a generalised accusing sentiment. Not that this black and white crisis doesn’t have a clear narrative, but that the show references global social problems and how all parties are involved. (My earlier point was about how an overtly preachy approach can be detrimental.)

David Goldblatt’s photos of the white middle class (in Soweto, for example) as well as Ernest Cole‘s more subversive eye on the apartheid (House of Bondage Random House 1967) are excellent documentation, especially regarding the Black Nannies of white children from a perspective that illuminates the issue by fact of existence, while not needing to drive home the point aggressively. That is what one looks for in a piece of this kind, and the audience are invited to reflect rather than be persuaded.

The performers are very strong and the text by Philip Rademeyer and Penelope Youngleson covers the subject matter well, through the treatment of character and poetic language. Since apartheid ended as late as 1991, (Black South African’s could only vote in ‘93, while their first election was ‘94,) the legacy will always warrant dialogue on the matter. Siembamba represents that and more, challenging notions of ‘race’ globally as much as locally.

*There is lots of discussion about the origins of the nursery rhyme Siembamba and the piece suggests many, from a cautionary-tale about snakes to a subversive warning about oppressive regimes. I recommend you look into it.

**Siembamba has been linguistically adapted according to the local audience, for example for KKNK in Oudstoorn, West Cape, the show is 60% Afrikaans, 35% English and 5% isiXhosa. For Grahamstown, it’s 60% English, 35% Afrikaans and 5% isiXhosa. For Amsterdam it was nearly fully in English, with a few parts in Afrikaans and 5% isiXhosa.

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