Ndebele Funeral, a play by Zoey Martinson, will bring its story of aspiration and loss in modern South Africa to the seventeenth annual New York International Fringe Festival this month. Produced by Smoke and Mirrors Collaborative, and directed by Awoye Timpo, the play is set in a Soweto shantytown and follows three characters: Daweti (Zoey Martinson), an HIV-positive college grad who has retreated to a shack to build her own coffin with government-issued supplies; artist Thabo (Yusef Miller), Daweti’s best friend; and Jan (Jonathan David Martin), an Afrikaner whose job it is to check up on the use of the government supplies. The play, which has toured South Africa, also features original music from Spirits Indigenous and gumboot dancing from the mines in Jo’burg, as well as humor.
Martinson, who serves as co-artistic director of Smoke and Mirrors, is an accomplished actress, director, and playwright. A&U had a chance to speak with Ms. Martinson as she prepped for the festival.
Chael Needle: Daweti is a college grad who has exiled herself because she is HIV-positive and has lost hope in her dreams and plans. One of her responses to her serostatus and her situation—building a coffin—seems to drive the action of the play. What prompted you to breathe life into this character?
Zoey Martinson: While I was working as a volunteer in Ghana, West Africa, this man, who was originally from South Africa, told me the story of his best friend’s life in a shack outside Soweto. The story stuck with me and found its way into this play. I tried to create as specific a character as possible in Daweti—she is a college graduate who has decided at this point to invest her hopes and dreams into building a coffin. I think this play is an important piece of theater because it welcomes the audience into a world that isn’t represented in modern drama. We take you to the inside of a shack in modern South Africa and shed light on the lives of people that exist there.
How did working on the play in Soweto and Cape Town, where you had residencies, impact your creative process?
It helped me make the play more specific. I used my time there to interview people and weave their words into the story. Sometimes I hear sections of the characters’ dialogue and my mind jumps to the person who shared that piece of their life. The actors in Soweto and Cape Town were fearless and helped me define each character. They put their hearts into my play and I am grateful because it made the story better.
Originally I was afraid to have them read it because I was an American trying to tell the story of modern South Africa. I was freaking out during the first read-through. When it ended there was silence and I thought they were trying to find a way to leave. This woman started crying; she was one of the people I had interviewed, [and] she said that she was so moved that I wrote this play.
How does Ndebele culture feature in the play?
The Ndebele are artists; they use color and patterns. The character Thabo is an artist so I found that fitting. I use the death ritual from the Zulu and Ndebele in the play as part of Daweti’s preparation for her own death.
What kinds of conversations do you hope Ndebele Funeral creates for audiences?
Each character represents a different piece of South Africa, so I hope the play offers people a wider scope of life in a shack. If the audience leaves having felt one moment of connection to the characters, I will be satisfied.
Ndebele Funeral, a finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Center: National Playwrights Conference and the LARK’s Playwright’s Week, is receiving its New York premiere production with its run at Teatro Circulo.
Perfomances of Ndebele Funeral are on select dates between August 9 and 25 at Teatro Circulo, as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. On August 25, there will be a talk-back after the show. Editor’s note: The run has been extended beyond August!
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.