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The Coolie Odyssey | Cool but Odd

Cool but Odd

by Dave Durbach / 14.04.2011

Trapped in Reservoir Hills, Durban, an Indian teenager grows increasingly detached from the traditions his single mom holds so dear. He would rather zone out to rock music on his iPod than do his daily prayers. Surly metal-loving teenager as he is, he decides to off himself. But before he can pull the trigger, he gets caught by his mom and her new boyfriend, and unwittingly invites a pesky monkey from the nearby trees into his home.

As they soon discover, this is no ordinary monkey. It’s the reincarnation of Ramlal Kilhari, who left Lucknow for Natal in 1888. The monkey must tell his story to free himself of his karmic debt, and so assumes the position in front of the typewriter and starts banging out his story. His is the story of Indians in South Africa, one that the boy himself is unaware of.

This seemingly tenuous link between present and past is central to The Coolie Odyssey, now on at the Market Theatre in Joburg, and highlights the continued relevance of this particular passage of history on the South African condition today.

A poet among peasants, Ramlal (played writer/director Rojesh Gopie) is blinded by desperate circumstances at home. He responds to a call from colonial authorities – the promise of work, food and lodging – and boards a ship to the new world. Of course it’s hardly the working vacation they expected – his pregnant wife doesn’t even survive the voyage. But he, his wife’s brother and his trusty friend make it, and embark on a 10-year contract as indentured labourers on the farm of the pompous Mr Wickham (Conrad Kemp), along with the Zulus living nearby and the highly strung Indian girl who grew up in Wickham’s house.

The Coolie Odyssey

Life is hard but they endure. Ramlal battles madness and alcoholism to gain the respect of everyone, and ultimately finds love. As the end of their contracts draws near and freedom finally beckons, Ramlal’s brother-in-law (played by Justin Strydom) has established himself as Wickham’s inside man and is ultimately given the land promised to the baas’s loyal lackey David (Don Mosenye). An argument ends in tragedy, as Ramlal kills his friend instead of his foe. So begins his karmic punishment – to assume the form of a monkey.

The story may be too historical for some to take an interest in – a few days after it opened on the Market’s main stage, the play could only attract about 20 people. First staged back in 2002, perhaps those who wanted to see it have already done so. This time around, Gopie has supposedly reinterpreted the production to commemorate the recent 150th anniversary of Indians in SA (much like Makhaya Ntini’s Bollywood farewell in Durban).

It’s hardly a flawless production – confusion may result from the actors all playing multiple characters (Avershree Maistry is the only female actress), while dodgy accents abound from the non-Indian cast members. But the story remains – one of dislocation, deception and personal hardship – a reminder of what has been endured.

The stage direction is simple yet effective, with minimal props and thoughtful use of sound. The highlight of the show is the live score sung by Mumbai-based Sufi musician, Anuraag Dounidyal. His vocal, guitar and percussion skills add a powerful emotional integrity to the story and alone are reason enough to go and check this out.

*The Coolie Odyssey is showing at the Market’s Main Theatre until 8 May.

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