GUMBO: a hearty and lusty recipe for life – Published in Sunday Indpependent

Posted: January 26, 2009 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews

©Astrid Stark

Published:  The Sunday Independent, 2008

“Listen with your eyes.” Director Tanya Surtees instructs the restless audience.  An agnostic silence follows.  A man and woman ditch theatre etiquette by taking the best seats.  They are violently booted out by the rightful tenant.  The couple loiter aimlessly until someone shows them how their tickets work.  More theatre-goers amble in; they are late and noisy.   

It’s the opening night of GUMBO which also marks the celebration of its 100th performance by theatre and education company ‘from the hip Khulumakahle (FTH:K)’.  Gumbo is South Africa’s first full-length deaf/hearing clowning show that is presented at a mainstream venue – Baxter’s Sanlam Studio Theatre. 

The crowd consists of entertainment hacks, friends and family of FTH:K, a group of deaf and hard of hearing patrons, as well as a group of paying visitors.

Tanya Surtees and a deaf member of FTH:K,  Nodumo Same, teaches the audience a handful of  deaf language signs. Tanya illustrates ‘deaf applause’ by throwing her arms into the air and rapidly waving her hands about. It breaks the ice and even the stringers nervously snort as they flap their hands at each other, and pull faces to match their wordless waves. 

The crowd settles as the hypnotic music begins.  Within seconds of being on stage, Rob Murray’s character slaps his ‘son’, fellow actor Lysander Barends, with such force that the sound violently ricochets through the theatre. The audience is stunned.  What follows is a rollicking experience that makes a ride at Ratanga Junction theme park feel like a Friday afternoon session in Parliament.

The story of GUMBO, written by Rob Murray and Floss Adams, revolves around an inn-keeper, Rob, whose psychotic behaviour stems from his self-inflicted loneliness and his shame of having a deaf son, played by Lysander.   

Lysander’s character is battered in a series of macabre and very physical theatrical bumps and hits.   True to life, the boy’s painful need for love and recognition is obvious despite the parental abuse he suffers. He takes his beatings and even manages to turn a wry smile with his darkly comical attempts at winning his father’s heart. 

During a beating session, a mysterious stranger and his daughter appear at the inn. The opportunistic inn-keeper lures the stranger into a game of cards (snap).  The winner gets the daughter.  So begins an unusual love story told through a mix of clowning and easy to understand sign language.  The stage setting is simple and striking and lends itself to the very physical nature of the production. 

At times Rob Murray’s calculated and chilling performance as the psychotic inn-keeper threatens to overshadow that of the rest of the cast.  His comical timing is perfect and his sickening adaptation of the character is both chilling and humorous, leaving us euphoric and disturbed. 

The love-struck two-some, played by Lysander Barends and Liezl de Kock, is an exaggerated symbol of naiveté.  It is a young love that mushrooms under the dark blanket of the inn-keeper’s violent oppression.

During the evening Liezl and Lysander perform a short and beautifully choreographed dance sequence (involving brooms), and the music score by Francois le Roux is an evocative rhythm that acts as clever punctuation to the events on stage.

The multi award-winning theatre and education company, FTH:K, develops opportunities for deaf and hearing performers within the performing arts.   FTH:K’s recent theatre work includes Bird’s Eye View, Pictures of You, Water Pockets and many more.

GUMBO has recently returned from a tour in Germany and Tanya Surtees says they are in talks with festival organisers to take the production to Burkina Faso, Lebanon and Argentina.  The production which has been seen by more than 10 000 people is a finalist for the Arts and Culture Trust Creative Industries Award 2008, sponsored by Distell.

“Working with both deaf and hearing performers has been challenging, yet it has produced a surprisingly rich theatrical product.” Says Tanya. “What interested me the most in the process was discovering the differences, and similarities, in the notion of ‘humour’ within deaf and hearing cultures, and finding ways to include both onstage.”

Tanya translates as Nodumo Same comments, in sign language, on her experience of the performance. “At first I wondered what it is all about.” says Nodumo’s voice through Tanya’s hands. “Then it started to fall in place.  GUMBO is powerful but it can also make you laugh.  I am so glad that the show is accessible to deaf people. This is very rare.”

At the end of the show, members of the audience thrust their arms high into the air, and frantically wave their hands at the glowing faces of the performers.  The artistic world of deaf and hard of hearing actors, directors and writers has just expanded a little bit more.

GUMBO runs in the Baxter Sanlam Studio Theatre from Monday 25 August to 13 September 2008



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