'What If Jesus Was A Tsotsi' - When the language barrier hits you hard
Winnie Theletsane headed to the National Arts Festival in Makhanda to watch 'What If Jesus Was A Tsotsi' and discovers that the complexities of living in a multilingual country can bring you close to tears.
JOHANNESBURG - I sat there as a Sesotho speaking woman from the Free State watching an isiXhosa play. I sat there near tears and confused, feeling let down not only by myself but by those around me.
I watched What If Jesus Was A Tsotsi play during the National Arts Festival in Makhanda and I have to admit, the language barrier hit me hard.
The title grabbed me from the second I saw it on the itinerary and I knew I had to watch this. So I went in expecting a blend of Bible tales and today's way of life. I thought I'd laugh my ribs off and leave with a more open mind, that when I got back to Joburg or Heilbron, in the Free State, I'd be able to crack a religious joke and not step on any toes.
But there I sat, lost in the language of the Eastern Cape and trying to piece together what the dance and the lip movements were trying to tell me. My isiXhosa is enough to help me find my way home if I were to get lost anywhere in the country. It's enough to find out how "umhlobo wam" is doing and if her family is also well. But that's it, it ends there.
So you can imagine my heartache and disappointment as I sat through the deep dialogue in isiXhosa, the deep kind that I normally tell my colleagues not to speak, the kind that requires me to ask for the sentence to be repeated and then go find out what each word meant.
I was lost and let down. I firstly, let myself down. As a black woman in South Africa where there are 11 officials languages, I should be able to understand more than just greetings in as many of those languages as possible. I need to be able to hold down a two-minute conversation with someone who speaks another language. I wonder, have I truly embraced the Rainbow Nation notion if I failed to understand a Bible scripture acted out in a Nguni language? Have I let my audience down in not being able to understand a play in isiXhosa and then report on it in English? What have I really learnt from my Xhosa-speaking colleagues and friends?
As much as the play should've been in English (a language taught in every school in this country and understood by many), I should've never come to the National Arts Festival with the expectation of being accommodated in any shape or form.
I was also let down by those around me who laughed at the jokes and did not bother to pause and notice that the right side of the theatre was laughing less while the left side was near tears with laughter. I was let down by the director who stood there even though he could pick up that not the whole audience was reeled in. I was let down by the players who continued and not once, not even for a second, thought about slowing down to accommodate everyone else.
I was let down by the fact that the production team thought that no one would travel kilometers upon kilometers to get to Makhanda just to watch them. How did I end up here? It all started with a name. A title: 'What If Jesus was a Tsotsi'. I chuckled just seeing the name alone and later sat down in sadness and heartbreak as I got lost in translation.
So, in my quest to try to get some meaning out of what I had just witnessed, I spoke to one of the actors, Siphesethu Nongena. I was specifically trying to get the message of the play, the whole point of the play and what I, as an audience member, should've left with.
"For me, the play is about showing people that whether you're a criminal or a born again Christian, Jesus is for us all," Nongena said.
He said that the message I should've left with had I understood most of the play, was that we should respect all traditions and religions, something I definitely didn't even get from the body language sent my way. All I picked up was one Bible verse, just one in the whole hour-long play - Matthew 4:1-11 where Satan tempted Jesus, promising all sorts of riches which Jesus didn't give in to.
But still, I missed the plot. I missed it all because I sat there with my depleting isiXhosa 'bundles' and thought I would enjoy the show.
So, here's my two cents on the show. Had the play been in English, it would probably have been a hit. Had the body language of the actors been more relaxed and less rushed, I could've picked up something. Had they been audible, maybe I could've had a chance to pick up a line or two and laugh like the left side of the theatre.
Instead, I sat there feeling let down and disappointed and left more determined to pay attention when people speak their languages and to learn from them.