Township ‘vluit’ hits the stage

6 December 2004

A comic play exploiting the township language of “vluit” – a unique whistling style that has its roots in the self-defence units of the once violence-ridden township of Katlehong – is now running at the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg.

“Barbershop” explores the often overwhelmingly difficult, but comic experiences, of a street barber, Baba ka Dennis, an immigrant who leaves his rural home to make ends meet in the City of Gold.

Baba ka Dennis sets up shop on a street in Johannesburg and has to learn street-talk – the township language of “vluit”. This he does with the help of a benevolent imbiber.

There are temptations of the flesh as well as stumbling blocks in Baba ka Dennis’s life, difficulties which aren’t helped by the dangerous, wintry Jozi streets.

The characters, played by Thabo Xaba, Pepe Sithole, Themba Skhosana and Bonginkosi Masango, live out their frustrations, anger, love and desires without a word being spoken – “vluit” says it all.

“We have taken this language and turned it into a way of entertaining people and showing them more about the world we come from”, says Xaba, who is also the playwright.

The unique whistling has its roots in the self-defence units of Katlehong, an East Rand township which was overrun by violence in the run-up to the 1994 elections. Former members of the units formed the Whistlers of Art theatre group after encountering the therapeutic power of theatre as part of an integration programme in 1995.

Each group in the township, says Sithole, has its own code of whistles. “It’s a way of communicating in secret, especially at night when criminal gangs are at work. After you have seen the play, you will have a totally new understanding the next time you hear a whistle in the street.”

“Barbershop” was developed at the Sibikwa Community Theatre and the Market Theatre Laboratory under renowned director Mncedisi Shabangu. The play has enjoyed acclaimed runs at the Wits Theatre, the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town and the Market Theatre as part of the 2003 Arts Alive Festival.

“Barbershop” is on until 19 December. For more information, contact the Market Theatre on (011) 832-1641.

Source: City of Johannesburg