From the darkness cracks a loud gunshot. A faint light appears, revealing a man in a shiny gold suit with his back to the audience. He lifts his feet one at a time as a high-pitched guitar-like rhythm starts to play. It is a startling beginning to Exit/Exist, a production from South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma, currently running at On the Boards in partnership with Seattle Theatre Group. The collaborative work, from Maqoma and his dance troupe Vuyani Dance Theatre, is a fast-paced emotionally driven, and combined with the celebratory vocals of the Complete Quartet, Exit/Exist reaches an almost spiritual place, enveloped by the unexplainable magic that occurs with some performances.
Although only loosely narrative-driven, the work recounts the struggles of Maqoma’s ancestors, including a Xhosa chief who fought the British in the 1800’s in order to protect the Xhosa’s cattle and land. In an attempt to stop the battles, the chief attempted to make peace with the British, only to be imprisoned on Robben Island, where he died under mysterious circumstances.
The soul of the story appears in Maqoma’s performance. As a direct ancestor of the Xhosa chief, his personal history—his very existence—springs from this story, and there is obvious emotional investment in every move as he dances. It is evident that he is performing from the soul—celebrating not only his personal history, but that of his ancestors, and the history and culture of Africa as well. Backed by the sometimes haunting vocals of the Complete Quartet (Happy Motha, Bubele Mgele, Bonginkosi Zulu, and Linda Thobela) Maqoma follows the often-complex rhythms of the music with perfect timing, combining free-flowing movement with traditional elements such as stomping, slapping his legs, and integrating moments of the Xhosa’s click language. He also transitions between emotional states with astounding grace and believability—from lively joy and showmanship to pure grief, on his knees, rocking back and forth, bending down to the ground, a face twisted into visible anguish. His costume changes (from modern to traditional tribal, to near naked) show him weaving through decades, suggesting that time doesn’t matter, history is both past and present and deeply intertwined.
The simple stage—a few low, square stools, piles of what appears like corn (a symbol of stolen cattle; without the cattle the grain to feed them piles up), and text of the story that appears on a scrim behind the singers and guitar player (Giuliano Modarelli) puts focus on the artists—both Marqoma and the quartet, showcasing the importance of the story itself, the emotion behind it, and the people involved. It is a celebration of spirit and resilience, and Marqoma keeps the memory of his ancestors alive, bringing to the surface the idea that history is not only behind and around us, it is always within us as well.
Above: Gregory Maqoma in Exit/Exist at On the Boards. Photo credit: John Hogg.