UBUNTU (The Cape Town Project) crosses a myriad of boundaries
Created by Theatrefront. Directed by Daryl Cloran. A production by Western Canada Theatre and Theatrefront. At the Firehall Arts Centre on April 13. Continues until April 21
UBUNTU (The Cape Town Project) is all about crossing borders—thematically and formally. Through an electrifying blend of movement, music, and dialogue (in both Xhosa and English), UBUNTU meditates on love, loss, and the irresistible pull of family.
The play opens with a dynamic series of movement sequences in which we watch Jabba, a young South African man, travel to Canada in search of the father who left when he was a baby. There is another person in the only photo Jabba has of his father: Michael, a professor at the University of Toronto. But when Jabba finds him, Michael claims not to remember Philani, Jabba’s father. Through a series of flashbacks, we discover that Michael is much more closely linked to Philani’s history than he’s letting on.
I don’t want to give away the plot’s surprises, and although some of the coincidences strain credibility, the story is never dull. Philani is a likable, complex character, and his courtship with Sarah, a neurotic grad student, is a pleasure both for its rich, playful dialogue and its inventive choreographic sequences—especially an early scene in which Sarah searches among the bookshelves, played by the constantly moving actors, in the university library where Philani works. Decades later, Jabba finds himself in the same library, where he meets Libby, a young woman who ultimately provides the key to his father’s story.
Under Daryl Cloran’s direction, the cast of five keeps the action moving seamlessly from past to present, from Cape Town to Toronto. The easygoing charm of Mbulelo Grootboom’s Philani is matched by Tracy Power’s sweetly self-conscious Sarah. Stacie Steadman’s Libby is a coiled bundle of grief, while Andile Nebulane brings a fiery determination to Jabba. Eric Goulem resists making the patronizing Michael a one-dimensional villain; he also shines in an understated turn as the Caretaker in a mausoleum. All the actors sing and dance beautifully.
Lorenzo Savoini’s set is a visually handsome metaphor for displacement: battered suitcases are stacked tight along the back and side walls of the playing area, continually surprising as they open into windows, doors and closets. Christian Barry’s sound design is punctuated by drums, static, and the rhythms of the human heart.
Those rhythms, UBUNTU reminds us, are sometimes more complicated than we realize, but they connect us all, across time and across continents.