Vista 1: A darkened auditorium with risers climbing twenty feet in the air. We see a packed house. The audience stares straight ahead. Shadows of the dancers it is watching dart energetically across the audience as a cello concerto crescendos. A few people squirm in their thin, navy, “Standard Bank”-emblazoned seat cushions. A teenager in front not-so-discretely pulls out a glowing rectangle to pop off a quick text. A man in the center wretches right and then left, trying in vain to get rid of the crick in his neck.
The music slows, and the shadows of the dancers follow suit. The silhouettes of two hands yawn towards one another—across the audience—meeting in the center as the music fades.
Lights down. After a brief moment, slow claps build to a thunder. Sharp, piercing whistles ring out. Lights come back up. The standing ovation begins immediately.
A few people don’t clap, but instead grab coat, hat, and gloves, and navigate down the risers to escape. They receive much shade from the cheering audience. As they open the exit door a bright, white light floods the auditorium, and the sound of marimbas drowns out the cheering crowd.
Vista 2: A chilly street just outside the auditorium. The marimba music that ended the previous scene continues through the whiteout, and now provides accompaniment that oscillates between quiet, virtuosic solos and mighty full-ensemble jam-out sessions. (author’s note: The music imagined here is the Ilithi Lelanga Marimba Ensemble, but any musical performance from Cape Town, Johannesburg, or Durban can be substituted, so long as it can make a party).
As the light fades, we see stretched out before us a long street built not of asphalt, but of a seemingly infinite tessellation of rectangular show posters, lain side by side like bricks. The road stretches towards a church in the distance, and is lined up and down with merchant tents, food trucks, and carpets where local women have lain out their homemade jewelry to sell.
A minibus taxi rounds the corner in a hurry; it is rushing patrons to a performance venue across the city. The lead marimba player sees this and quickly lays down a sizzling ditty; the taxi stops dead in its tracks—its electricity completely shot. A well-to-do woman, extremely late for her show, jumps out of the taxi and jogs frantically down the poster-lined road. She stops short when she hits a cloud of ganja smoke from a group of Rastafarians selling beanies, sandals, patches, and drums colored in all combinations of red, green, and yellow.
The woman rubs her eyes and blinks twice. She now notices the group of adolescent children from town just nearby, who are dancing traditional Zulu pair dances to the marimba music. She joins the small crowd that has gathered to watch them and puts the 120 rand she was going to spend on her show—which has now quite forgotten—into a hat being passed around.
A police officer passing by witnesses this. She ignores the ganja smoke and her orders to check the immigration status of festival merchants; instead, she saunters down the street, shimmying with the beat.
Vista 3: We have followed the police officer to another market square amidst several Victorian neo-gothic churches that are being used as performance venues. For the moment, the streets are almost empty since shows are commencing inside. On the wall of one church, we see a graffito picturing Steve Biko with the caption “Fuck Festival of the Rich” scrawled underneath. The words were written a long time ago, but have never been coated over by city authorities or touched up by the author—the paint is now old and peeling.
If we listen closely, we can still faintly hear the marimbas, but for the moment, the soundscape is dominated by a blind old man playing keyboard and singing out in isiXhosa. A middle-aged couple dance around him; nearby, two children (ages 8 and 10) wearing white face paint, sunglasses, beanies, and extremely baggy clothing stand perfectly motionless. They are statues for the moment; they wait for people to toss coins to them so they can dance the boogaloo as entertainment. Perhaps at some point this happens.
An economist from the local university rushes towards one of the churches to hand out post-show demographic surveys. As she nears the building the doors swing open and the audience clambers out into the streets, passing her by. In fact, all the shows have somehow ended at the same time, and the street has become flooded with activity.
The palpable buzz of the crowd threatens to drown out the singing man, but a long line of musicians arrive to augment his tune: Hare Krishnas chanting their repetitive chorus, a Kwaito DJ providing bass drops at opportune moments, a dreadlocked white guy playing guitar. The music never slips to cacophony, but steadily grows into an ever more complex series of interlocking melodies.
The economist tries fervently to hand out questionnaires, but it’s a madhouse—and she has another show to get to. She tosses the questionnaires into the air and they cascade down onto the crowd. She begins walking to the opposite end of the long, poster-lined street.