Theatre Review

South African, Canadian collaboration Ubuntu is inventive, invigorating theatre

Prairie Theatre Exchange's Ubuntu is a funny, heartbreaking story of a South African man’s search for his father in Canada — and it's engaging theatre.

Prairie Theatre Exchange offers funny, heartbreaking story of South African’s search for father in Canada

Mbulelo Grootboom is one of the stars and co-creators of Ubuntu, which blends traditional theatre with dance-like physical theatre and bits of music in an appealing mix. (Ian Jackson/Epic Photograhy)

"I am because you are, and you are because I am."

That's the loose translation of the South African philosophy of ubuntu given in the play of the same name, a 2009 collective creation that's toured Canada and now makes its first appearance in Winnipeg at Prairie Theatre Exchange.

That idea of the interconnectedness of all people is perhaps fitting for this remarkable piece of theatre, collectively created by seven artists from South Africa and Canada (three of them — two actors and director Daryl Cloran — are involved in this PTE/Citadel Theatre co-production).

But it's also an idea central to Ubuntu (The Cape Town Project), the story of Jabba (co-creator Andile Nebulane), a young South African man in search of the father who left him when he was just a year old. 

Ubuntu co-creator Andile Nebulane as Jabba and Erin McGrath as Libby in Ubuntu. The show's characters are layered and brought to life vividly by the five-member cast. (Ian Jackson/Epic Photography)

That search brings him to Canada, where his father, Philani (Mbulelo Grootboom, another of the original creators of the show) came to study virology and fell in love with a Canadian woman, Sarah (Tracey Power).

Jabba's quest brings him into contact with Michael (David Jansen) — a professor who clearly knows more about Philani than he wants to admit — and with Michael's daughter, Libby (Erin McGrath).

Befitting a story that spans continents and decades, Ubuntu crosses all sorts of boundaries as it tells its story, with winning results.

Its roots in collective creation show, as it blends traditional theatre with beautifully choreographed and expertly performed dance-like physical theatre scenes, bits of music and chanting, and even a few scenes featuring dialogue in Xhosa (one of South Africa's official languages).

Likewise, Ubuntu blends comedy and tragedy smoothly. It offers up an appealing mix of laugh-out-loud moments (even making jokes about South Africans adjusting to Canada's chilly climate feel fresh and funny), frenetically fun physical theatre and moments of aching sadness.

It all plays out against a clever set by designer Lorenzo Savoini, emphasizing the show's border-crossing theme by using stacked suitcases as its background.

Preview of Ubuntu (The Cape Town Project) at the Prairie Theatre Exchange, Nov 09 - Nov 26, 2017 2:51

All of that may sound like a hodgepodge, but it comes together beautifully in Cloran's well-honed, 95-minute production. In both its writing and direction, Ubuntu is lean — there's not a wasted moment here as its richly layered story unfolds and Jabba unravels the mystery of his father's life in Canada.

The characters are also richly layered — there are no stock types in Ubuntu, and the characters are brought to life vividly by the five-member cast. All have standout moments, but the show really belongs to Grootboom and Nebulane, and they seize the moment with performances that are both finely nuanced and passionate.

Ubuntu is inventive, invigorating and engaging theatre — and ultimately, a beautiful reminder that there are more things that connect us than divide us.

Ubuntu (The Cape Town Project) runs at Prairie Theatre Exchange until Nov. 26.