Best of Fest: What to see at this year’s 969 Festival

And just like that, the 42nd annual National Arts Festival has come to a close. Every year NAF plays host to some of the best theatre, visual art, music, comedy and performance art from both locally and abroad across a frantic and jubilant 10 days of the year, all in the small Eastern Cape City of Grahamstown.

For many, the trip to NAF isn’t doable, either due to financial, geographical or time constraints. Recently, in an effort to extend the shows of NAF to a wider audience, Cape Town has become home to the Cape Town Fringe Festival. Similarly, Johannesburg has its own longstanding festival showcasing the best of Fest – The 969 Festival.

Taking place at the Wits Theatre, the 969 Festival gets its name from the 969kms it takes to travel from Johannesburg to Grahamstown. Currently in its 13th year, the festival sees a line-up of some of the best NAF productions, peppered with a few international pieces too. Kicking off on Wednesday 13 July and running until Sunday 24 July, this year’s programme features 21 different productions. These are a few of the shows we’re most looking forward to.

Unveiled | 15, 16 and 17 July

Gulshan Mia performs in Unveiled. Photo by CuePix/Jane Berg.
Gulshan Mia performs in Unveiled. Photo by CuePix/Jane Berg.

One of the international productions on this year’s line-up is the lauded one-woman show, Unveiled. Written by playwright Rohina Malik, the piece serves as a response to the widespread anti-Muslim sentiment that took place across the United States after the events of September 11, 2001. Starring South African-born actress Gulshan Mia, Unveiled is a poignantly personal, sometimes humorous, and decidedly heart-breaking piece of theatre that follows the thoughts and experiences of five Muslim women in the wake of 9/11. The production has experienced success across the globe already, and fresh off the back of a successful run at NAF, Unveiled should be polished and raring to go at this year’s 969 Festival.

Blue | 17 July 

Cast Members, Luthando Jamda and Tyson Ngubeni, perform in Blue. Photo by CuePix/Madeleine Chaput.
Cast members Stella Phumla Dlangalala and Tyson Ngubeni, perform in Blue. Photo by CuePix/Madeleine Chaput.

With a debut run at NAF, the AltEye Productions piece Blue will host one performance at this year’s 969 Festival. Taking its name from the country’s notorious Blue Light Brigades, Blue is a tale of power, corruption, accountability and innocence weaved together through local news stories, nefarious government dealings, and the ever dwindling myth of the Rainbow Nation. Featuring Tyson Ngubeni and Stella Phumla Dlangalala who move between a multiplicity of characters, the devised piece is directed by Simona Mazza and posits “In life, everyone is a victim, everyone is a predator. Nothing is black and white, only Blue.”

Feathers | 21 July

Eugene Masiane performs in Feathers. Photo by CuePix/Jodi van Vuuren.
Eugene Masiane performs in Feathers. Photo by CuePix/Jodi van Vuuren.

Bringing dance and physical theatre to the 969 lineup is Feathers. With an all-male crew, Feathers sees Moving Into Dance Mophatong celebrate 38 years in the SA dance industry by showcasing four spectacular dance works. The 60 minute show will see Oscar Buthelezi’s Road, Sunnyboy Mandla Motau’s My Black is Black, the Dance Umbrella commissioned fight, flight, feathers , f***ers, and the one-man performance Everlast. Each piece deals with a vital topic, be it race, ownership or heritage, while an overarching theme of masculinity and the complexities that come with it ties the production together. The show runs for one night only so be sure to book in advance.     

Heart’s Hotel | 22 and 23 July

Liezel de Kock performs in Heart’s Hotel. Photo by CuePix/Gemma Middleton.
Liezel de Kock performs in Heart’s Hotel. Photo by CuePix/Gemma Middleton.

Heart’s Hotel is a delightfully dark piece of theatre. Following the story of a mother and daughter who attempt to piece together a new life from the grimy hotel of a foreign and forlorn town, the James Cuningham directed piece makes use of shadow-puppetry, mime, physical theatre, and a whole lot of paper to tell its story. The production’s strength doesn’t just lie in its storyline either. Heart’s Hotel is performed by a powerhouse cast of Toni Morkel and Liezl de Kock as mother and daughter, and Christelle van Graan who handles shadow puppetry, each actor masterfully conveying the overarching themes of grief, loss and painful, perpetual longing.

bRENT – A Mobile Thriller | 15, 16, 21, 22 and 23 July

Vianney Henry Farmer and Herman Vorster in bRENT- A Mobile Thriller
Vianney Henry Farmer and Herman Vorster in bRENT- A Mobile Thriller.

If you’ve never had the chance to see a piece of immersive theatre before, now’s your chance. From the mind of multi-award winning director Quintin Wells, bRENT is the latest in a series of mobile thriller productions that are immersive, site specific and wholly compelling. In bRENT, audience members take a ride through the streets of Johannesburg where they will encounter characters who practice homophobic and horrific ‘conversion therapy’ for gay people. The piece is not passive and as an audience member, you won’t be either. Be prepared to be taken on a harrowing and complex journey that’s as entertaining as it is horrifying.  

Immortal | 22, 23 and 24 July

Jenna Dunster performs in Immortal Photo by CuePix/Madeleine Chaput.
Jenna Dunster performs in Immortal. Photo by CuePix/Madeleine Chaput.

Good theatre takes good stories and makes them better. In the case of Immortal, the story is already fascinating. Taking place over one incredible day, Immortal follows the tale of Hazel Smith, a young girl who was the only survivor of a chaotic and historical Eastern Cape accident. The story goes that back in 1911, a train travelling from Port Alfred to Grahamstown was carrying about 50 passengers and one large stone destined for the Grahamstown Cathedral. Upon passing over the Blauwkrantz gorge, the bridge by the same name gave way, seeing all but one life being lost. Directed by Chris Weare and featuring Jenna Dunster as the surviving Hazel, Immortal weaves narratives of human strength, religion, and the colonial past of the Eastern Cape into one harrowing and brilliantly performed piece of theatre.

If none of these caught your eye, check out the full 969 Festival programme here and find out more about the festival on their website. Tickets are available via webtickets.co.za and at the Wits Theatre Box Office.

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