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Pula on Broadway

Mmapula finally made it rain PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Pula, a dance production by ILoveBotswana Ensemble directed and written by Andrew Kola of Mophato Dance Theatre, showcased on Broadway, Times Square last week leaving many Batswana who live in the United States in tears of nostalgia. At least one Motswana woman got possessed with the spirit of Ngwale and many New Yorkers were yearning for more of Botswana’s culture and dance, THALEFANG CHARLES writes from New York City

NEW YORK: The story begins at the Kgotla with a gathering of happy and energetic men and women for the rainmaking ceremony.

The women, wearing the Setswana traditional dance attire, those scant leather apparels that reveal the Kgalagadi earth-coloured skin tones of their beautiful thighs, and the men topless – most of them showing off their ripped warrior torsos.

The chief, played by Alphons Koontse, also known as Tshumu, bearing his signature ram-horns headgear, is about to address the gathering. He is macho, and he knows it. So, he walks like a great African warrior king. The praise poet, performed by Gofaone Modise, also doing the narration of the dance, introduces the chief and the rainmaking ceremony he is about to oversee.

In the chief’s address, he sings about “Gae ko Botswana, Kwa Ga Ntate Sechele (the world famous rainmaker whom David Livingstone made quit rainmaking) Re tshela ka Pula, Ae ne ka masubelele.” 

As the chief addresses the gathering, Moroka wa Pula - “the most revered man in our land” the rainmaker, played by the humble and talented Ntirelang Berman, walks gingerly onto the stage clad in traditional bushman’s medicine men attire. He has come to charm the clouds, at the command of the chief, to make it rain. The clouds oblige and the good times roll.

Cue the song, “Pula naa, reta dika re jele”.  Good rains signal the happy days ahead, says the song.  Everyone is happy.

Then we are taken to the lands. It is time for weeding. The women are toiling hard and begging for someone with a good heart to help carry their child. “Mma Mmati mpelegele ngwana yo kea lema/Ke lema kele nosi” is the song led by the stunning vocalist, Pesalema Motshodi. Other women arrive onto the scene with hoes in their hands, pleading in their song for anyone to help them.

The women find solace in their chats and juicy village gossip like what happened to their neighbours’ sons and daughters who are just arriving from initiation schools.  The young men, who have just graduated from boyhood, return holding sticks with ostrich feathers and singing “Pitso e kgolo” led by the multitalented Star Phalane.

The whole scene resembles a welcome reception of Mophato (regiment) in Mochudi. It is breathtaking!. There are young women wearing makgabe (loin cloth), looking sensual in their youthful exuberance.  As they dance in front of mophato, some young men get attracted to, but one beautiful girl.  A big fight is set and arranged to solve the matter – the winner takes the girl.

The fight is between the amazing Kalima Mipata and Edward Mphakela. Mipata, whose Pula stage name is Kabo, wins the girl after some expert striking and wielding of the stick that floored Mphakela. The prize is Mmapula, played by the dance virtuoso called Lone Motsomi.

The following act is Kabo and Mmapula’s wedding. Mphakela, who was in the previous scene fighting Mipata for the girl, returns as Kabo’s uncle. It is a trifle confusing for the foreign audience. Mphakela enters the stage praising his nephew groom in Setswana. This, for non-Setswana speakers must have sounded like a continuation of the fight over the girl, especially that he later arrives driving a mad bull cart onto the scene.

But to Batswana inside the PlayStation Theatre, it is a heart-warming scene as the uncles, the parents and morafe are happy for the young couple and the wedding party begins.

The phatisi dancers takeover as they beat their shins wrapped with cloth and animal skins. These are some of the best phatisi dancers in the country. A dead skunk is thrown onto the stage and it appears malodorous, at least from the facial expressions of the women cheering the phatisi dancers. That is when Tshumu makes another ‘rokoro’ entrance onto the stage.  He jumps up and walk on all fours to catch the stinking skunk with his mouth. More cheers from the women, but others are nauseated.  Then enter all men doing a beautiful synchronised phatisi that really charms the crowd.

The narrator, Modise stops the phatisi in midflight and asks for the guitar man and from behind the veil, Solly Sebotso hits his four-string guitar and plays Stampore’s classic Mahipihipi.  The song talks about the beautiful African girl with gorgeous swinging hips. The song has a cheeky advice saying, “Ha ngwanyana a go gana ‘oe’ bofe ka letsela”.

The party reaches fever pitch at a shebeen. The shebeen queen is played by Esther Motshegwa, whose potent hooch dubbed ‘Tshwene, a traditional beer, gets everyone to

dance dirty. There is the funny stonkana dance led by Gaebatlwe Serame, who rocks it so delightfully. And what is a shebeen without the women?  Serame comes and takes them for a ride with his charming stonkana before Star takes over and gives it a masterly act. Then the inebriated Tsotsis (hoodlums) crash in, stylishly donning their dobbs and disturbing the party with their roughhouse dance before the shebeen queen shuts down the party.  When the narrator returns on stage, he is all happy, lively and sweating from the party.

After just one sweat wiped off his face, he unexpectedly gets sad and hurt. It is drought time. No rain.  The people return with sad faces singing “Selelo sa Batswana”.  It is a remake of Mphoreng Malema’s folklore called ‘Selelo sa malema’. The stage background picture is from the Lekhubu Island near the revered shrine.

The chief is pleading with the rainmaker to make it rain because “sechaba se a swa”. After some conversation with the Gods, the rainmaker delivers a shocking message. The Gods have ordered him to pass the magic to his daughter Mmapula (Lone Motsumi). And like a thunderbolt, Mmapula is instantaneously hit by the spell.  She bolts out from the middle of the gathering with so much ethereal energy and distressing shriek that made many in the audience skip a beat.  She must accept the calling by taking the rainmaking heirloom from his old man. The poor young woman is reluctant, but there is no way out – it is Gods calling. From here, the audience is transported into a heart-breaking flight of a girl embarking on a journey to amass powers that would save her nation. 

She travels deep into the Kgalagadi and meets up with the first people of the Kalahari.   Basarwa welcome her with their dances - Tsutsube and spiritual trances. During her spiritual ceremony with Basarwa led by the medicine man, played by Gofaone Kgotlhang, the wild kudus with their twisted horns come on to be part of it, only to leave when the spirits have been conferred onto Mmapula.

The daughter of the rainmaker then returns home to her husband, Kabo thinking that it was enough with her spiritual journey.

But in the thick of the night, after some warm embraces with her husband under the full moon - a charming addition of contemporary dance to the play – she is rudely awakened by the spirits of the dances from Ngamiland and Chobe.

The Seperu dancers remind her that her spiritual journey is not complete. She must travel deeper into Botswana.

She must cross the desert, rivers and continue to the hills of Domboshaba to meet with the Ngwale Gods. Mmapula then continues her spiritual journey. We see her with the Hosanna dancers. The dancers are wearing white shirts, black skirts, and dark headgears, and it feels like church.  The Uwe Uwe Uwe and slow dances of di-Hosana hit deep into the crowd inside the PlayStation Theatre.  Mmapula takes charge and urges everyone to join in and clap the hands to the beat.

The whole theatre obliges and everyone could feel the rising energy. The rain clouds gather. There are trances in the middle of the gathering on stage. After some dancing with her husband in the midst of di-Hosana, Mmapula picks up her husband and spins him in the air like she is a superwoman and that is when the skies open up and showers the thirsty land.

The crowd erupts with a rousing applause and sighs of relief. Mmapula, the chief and everyone, smile and let it rain on Broadway.

And as it is the norm, Pula means there should be a celebration; so for the finale, the cast takes the audience into a mash of meddle of Setswana traditional and contemporary dances.  It is beautiful, rain has come and everyone is happy. The good times are back.

During the third and last show, (all of them received a standing ovation, the last two were all sold out), one Motswana woman (name withheld) living in the US got possessed by the spirits after the show.  People watched in awe as the possessed woman, surrounded by her family and friends, screamed and shouted in tongues at the exit of the PlayStation Theatre in Times Square. 

It was a powerful moment to witness how a fictitious play could hit people so deeply.

Pula was presented by the Battery Dance (US) and sponsored by Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO). Thalefang Charles was in the US courtesy of BTO.




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