Welcome to Rocksburg

“Where crime is taught from early years, it becomes a part of nature.” Ovid, Heroides (4.25)

An anonymous convict draws his beer-crate seat to the front of the stage. Above the noisy chatter and singing of his fellow inmates, he confides in the audience. He tells us that his township has no university; the prison, dubbed by its inmates the “University of Rocksburg”, is where the townsfolk learn their lessons. His speech is passionate, animated and heartbreaking. Another prisoner disengages himself from the crowd. He tells us that it is his 21st birthday, a symbolic coming-of-age and the day on which he is released from Rocksburg prison. This facially disfigured young man, the protagonist, strips off his fluorescent orange prison-issue jumpsuit and soliloquises on the nature of freedom. He pulls on his civilian clothes, asking, “what do you do with freedom when you have it?”

This sequence, like many others throughout the play, happens in slow motion, a device that allows the internal voices of the characters to break through, revealing their personal preoccupations directly to the audience almost independently of the freeze-frame action that surrounds them. These episodes are held in stark opposition to the quick-fire dialogues and explosive action that take place in real time, expertly blending subtlety with brutality. Based around an episodic structure, the atmosphere of this “fictional graphic novel” is overtly cinematic and intentionally mixes Hollywood clichés and South African community theatre conventions to form an original and striking theatrical performance.

The stage is littered with empty crates and oil drums, the gritty staples of urban street furniture, revealing the poverty of this township where everybody seems connected to criminal activity and corruption. During the remarkably quick scene changes, these props are appropriated to make domestic furniture with the addition of a cloth or a tea-tray, or the instruments of violence with their misuse. The set reflects the essence of the play; something touchingly simple, which, in the right hands, becomes something beautiful.

All of the characters are vibrant caricatures, each clearly defined and highly stylised, becoming cartoonish representations of the different types of people who interact in this tense environment. The main character is defined by his Herculean strength, a gift which he must learn to master against the pressures of the violent and corrupt society in which he lives. As a result of his disfigurement, he is cruelly nicknamed “King Kong” and in his ostracism becomes a part of the criminal underground, a disturbingly prevalent part of this corrupt township. Although the significance of his disfigurement is largely glossed over until the last “chapter”, it is revealed to be crucially important to the functioning of the play, explaining some of the negative attitudes held towards this naïve, but essentially well-meaning, protagonist.

Alongside the hero, or perhaps antihero, of the play is a diverse mixture of figures that seem to have stepped straight out of a cartoon onto the stage. The local crime lord, nicknamed Ray, is a delightfully flamboyant urban pirate, complete with an eye patch and a Matrix-style overcoat. He is typified by his overtly cinematic style of speech and runs the show with his extrovert personality. The ubiquitous love triangle, and main point of tension throughout the performance, is played out between Ray’s brother, his schoolgirl lover and the main character, who has fallen in love with her from afar. On the other side of the law is the policeman Max who, in attempting to escape from his ex-wife, has fallen into a destructive world of alcoholism. His partner in crime-fighting, Chuck, is experiencing marital problems due to the pressures of his job. These domestic details firmly and artfully embed the play in realism, despite the stylised dramatic techniques which denote fiction. The relationship between the two policemen is modelled on the standard good cop/bad cop formula. In reality, however, Chuck, ostensibly the “good” half of the duo, is the most corrupt and the “bad”, Max, is permitted to take the moral high ground. This sadly seems indicative of the overall functioning of this fictional township.

This melting-pot of hyper-real personalities is followed through a series of chapters, the most exhilarating scene being “the heist”. It is the turning point in the play, in which the hero becomes embroiled in the criminal underworld through blackmail by Ray, the eccentric mastermind. The dysfunctional band of criminals attempts a cash-in-transit heist that rapidly spirals into a dramatic gun-battle with the police. The sound of gunshots is created as the characters strike their weapons on the oil drums, here used as barriers, while the stage is invaded by smoke. The characters become silhouettes hidden behind this smoke screen, lost in the confusion of the shouts, rapidly beating drums and apocalyptic music that fill the air. Amidst the chaos, a stray bullet hits an innocent bystander, the father of the schoolgirl heroine. The hero obeys his conscience and takes the injured man to hospital, thus abandoning the criminals in favour of his lover’s father, jeopardizing the whole operation. This decision proves to be the beginning of the hero’s undoing and leads to the final showdown between the opposing, if blurred, forces of good and bad. The paradox of the play lies in the fact that all of the characters, despite their morality, have been shown to have fundamental flaws and the corruption of the systems of justice means that there is no real justice at all. This dramatic denouement, like all of the fight scenes throughout the play, are excellently choreographed, appearing to be violent but strangely beautiful dances, and the sheer energy of the actors is incredible to witness. The cast conveys excruciating suffering and touching gentleness with immense skill and completely embody the diverse characters they play.

The writer and director, Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom, the “township Tarantino”, blends a strong vibe of community theatre with explicitly cinematic overtones in this original South African production. Following the style of Tarantino, Grootboom’s dialogue is littered with profanities, often used to comic effect, and makes frequent allusions to other films. Jerry Maguire’s “show me the money” has crept into the script and The Shining’s famous phrase has been transformed, to give us “all play and no work makes Jack a dull boy”. The very idea of the botched heist recalls Reservoir Dogs and there are frequent references to martial arts, which have had a profound impact on Tarantino’s movies, as has the now idiosyncratic three-way gun shoot out, which features to startling effect at the end of the play.

Grootboom makes extensive use of live music played by South African musicians seated on the stage, which serves as the soundtrack to the action and is punctuated by frequent harmonious outbursts by the cast. The use of local dialect gives a distinctly South African flavour to this play, which is infused with distinctly international cinematic aspirations. The play is deliberately stylised and excessive, conveying the cartoonish aspect of graphic novels while still maintaining the credibility of ideas through the strength of the dialogue and characterisation. In eschewing overblown state-of-the-art techniques, something genuine is created.

Welcome to Rocksburg is the story of a community in a downward spiral of self-destruction and speaks long on the notion of freedom and the universal truths of what it is to be human. It is touching and prophetic, and its themes are universal. It is the first play in “The Rocksburg Trilogy”; the playwright and director, Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom, is definitely one to watch.

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