[18 January 2008]
How do I begin to describe the raucous celebration that is South African show House of the Holy Afro? Take one part tradition, one part deconstruction, an attitude that says, Screw this, let’s dance, and… yeah, that still doesn’t really do it.
The show is a collage of disco beats, gospel harmonies, and the occasional bit of slam poetry (which, more often than not, verges on sung phrases). A collaborative project between house DJ Dino Moran, performance troupe Third World Bunfight, and performance poet Odidi Mfenyana, the show operates under the guidance of playwright/artist Brett Bailey.
Performed in a venue that usually houses mid-level rock bands or dance parties, the 90-minute performance is as much about getting the audience members to have a good time—to dance, wave their arms back and forth, or participate in classic guys/girls call-and-response with the performers—as it is about symbolically embodying the country it’s representing. From the performers to the costumes, every part of House of the Holy Afro is a reflection of the contradictions and realities of present-day South Africa. Not in any hyper-critical, serious manner, of course; rather, the group’s performance reflects the absurdities inherent in the sudden juxtaposition of tradition and modernity.
Case in point: the show opens with an extended meditation—low-chanted gospel chords over a wide bass drone. The six performers on stage are dressed in a deliberate subversion of traditional garb. The guys wear loincloth-type costumes made with glittering kids’ craft materials and papier-mâché masks mocking traditional tribal forms. The women sport bold stripes of make-up that give off the impression of goatees.
Things heat up when the performers’ big personalities take over. The alto sweeps across the stage in a tiny dress that barely covers her form, doing a fine impression of the disco diva in a huge white Afro wig. “This is an African party!” she says, and even the middle-aged festival stalwarts at the back of the theatre are smiling and bobbing their heads. Meanwhile, the beats keep coming, and the mood of the night has turned celebratory: one couple at the front of the stage is already dancing so hard they’re throwing beads of sweat out at all around them.
This African party incorporates other parties, too—swiftly cycling, mash-up-style, through the choruses of “Time Is On My Side”, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, “Preacher Man”, and other familiar classics. The audience barely has time to process the deluge of musical imagery, let alone the movement on the stage. Here’s a huge cross, hung in front of a red backdrop. Here’s Odidi as an American Apparel model, in tight white leggings. Wait, with the white lips and aggressive head movement, was that costume meant to reference Dave Chapelle’s crackhead character? No matter: you’re too busy marveling at the step-style dancing of the performers and feeling decidedly, um, white as you hesitate to bop along to the broken beat.
A spoken-word section in the middle of the performance seems to be the show’s centerpiece. “This is what it is ... the Afro ... it does not instigate.” So, like the best art, House of the Holy Afro is a prayer for love. “Most of all, [the Afro] is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.” As Mfenyana shouts these words, he issues in an as-yet-unheard level of elation. I’m standing halfway across the room—I think that guy’s sweat just hit my arm.
As the show wears on, the focus changes a little from the kitsch and camp of the opening to a more traditional gospel sound, deeper house beats, and, ultimately, a more poignant atmosphere. Although he jumps around with the energy of someone who cares only about dancing, the DJ, Moran, has expertly orchestrated the tenor of the piece to reflect what’s happening onstage, and the audience is in the palm of his hand.
But really, that’s where we’ve been for the duration of the show. We stand, most, if not all of us, in something like disbelief—a happy, dazed, harmonious place where you can’t help but grin like an idiot and have the time of your life.
With that, I don’t know if I’ve gotten any closer to describing the joyous assault of House of the Holy Afro. If it ever comes to your city, go yourself, and see if you can find better words.