Themba Mvula as Bhekizizwe in Robert Fokkens’s opera
Bhekizizwe is a bright boy, for whom the village elders have high hopes—compensation of sorts for the absence of his mother, a political activist, who abandoned him to his grandmother’s care. The gentle wistfulness of the lullaby sung by Bhekizizwe at the outset establishes him as a sympathetic character, and that tenderness becomes a recurrent theme in the drama, expressed in the bond with his first love, Ntombi, and in due course with Sarah, the white English woman who will bear his child. The journey from village to university in Pretoria and then to further study in London is fluently conveyed in music that is lyrical, jaunty or angry, and Fokkens’s word-setting is effective. Mvula moves with an easy grace, his warm baritone catching the changing inflections from a maturing youth to a graduate with prospects: his articulation of Bhekizizwe’s voice is immaculate, as is his command of the various accents that help differentiate the other characters. The sharp and slyly drawn observations on the racism he faces—not least from Sarah’s appalling father—tread a fine line between witty caricature and the personification of a reality that is still being denied, and in the highest places. Part of the strength of the piece is that it’s never absolutely clear whether Bhekizizwe will cope with or flee from the emotional stress, echoing as it does the anguish and confusion that is the legacy of his childhood. It is this natural ebb and flow of feelings—his and ours— that helps sustain the piece over 85 minutes. Ultimately, it is the decision not to allow history to repeat itself that commits Bhekizizwe to fighting on, to defy the racism, to be there for his own child, to sing lullabies and to soothe pain.
This collaborative event, streamed as part of the online Welsh arts festival Gŵyl 2021, was filmed by Opera’r Ddraig, directed by Benjamin Davis, and with Brad Caleb Lee’s minimal set evocatively lit. Fokkens himself is the musical director. With luck, the necessarily abandoned tour will happen in the future: a live staging would only heighten the experience. rian evans
Jina and the STEM Sisters http://www.hmdt.org.uk/hmdtmusic/stemsisters/ For more than two decades Hackney Music Development Trust has been producing new music-theatre works for young people, their families and their schools. Jina and the STEM Sisters reflects HMDT’s intent to have key elements of their projects be easily transferable into schools’ curricula. This one-act, hour-long piece really goes the
Opera, May 2021