Mbongeni Mtshali’s in (s)kin – a review

Playwright Mbongeni Mtshali’s latest piece, now being performed at the South Africa National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, transcends the personal to become universal


Childhood is remembered in shards: segments of experience that have been shattered by time and disappointment, incapable of ever being returned to their exact original state. When those shards are held up to the light of adulthood, they are given new political and emotional hues with each remembering. This makes them infamously unwieldy raw materials for any endeavour in which fidelity to facts is important. But historical accuracy is not Mbongeni Mtshali’s mission in his latest play, in (s)kin. His ambition is much bigger, his is an exploration of those shards and a celebration of their brokenness.

The first few years at a boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal, a province of South Africa, in the 1980s is the particular aspect of childhood that Mtshali is looking at in this production. It is both a deeply personal account, complete with family tragedies that could have been penned by JM Coetzee, and a universal one. After all, the institution that forms the backdrop – a rural private school – has played a formative role in a large number of African leaders’ lives. In that sense it is also Nelson Mandela’s story, or Robert Mugabe’s.

Mtshali, who wrote and directed the piece, weaves elements of physical theatre with poetic monologues and archival video to create a work that is truly beautiful and somewhat ephemeral – like memory.


An education that is identity-changing

It begins with scenes in which the narrator, Thembekile Komani, recalls being driven to the school for the first time by his stoic father. “The drive represented a passage between one world and the next,” says Komani. They drive past men who have “grown old before their time” until they reach a palatial school complex that would change him forever. What ensues is a slow and almost imperceptible acculturation as the young boy, one of only three black attendees, is sucked into Africa’s education industrial complex.


“ The young boy…is sucked into Africa’s education industrial complex. ”


Immediately he is thrown into physical training, or PT, as it is known in these kinds of schools. Soon there is much shirtless play-fighting with the other boys as his sexuality peeps out from under his well-guarded defences. Intricately choreographed dance sequences depict these moments: they start out as carefree, then become erotic and finally morph into intense expressions of need. Jared Musiker, the répétiteur of these sequences, does an incredible job of creating mesmerising routines that both allude to the brutishness of rugby while retaining a legato sensuality.

The theme of bodies reappears when Mtshali’s mother, played by the regal Ntombi Makhutshi, combs her fingers through a pile of dirt – no doubt a reference to the state to which our bodies all return.


Becoming unrecognisable

When the boy returns home for the holidays, his father does not recognise him. At first it seems that the school has changed him so much. Later we discover that it is because the father has Alzheimer’s disease – he has been “exiled from his memories”. And so both characters are faced with an indefatigable assault on their identity – one brought on by disease, the other inched along by well-intentioned teachers and biased history books.


“ It is difficult to watch the play and not think of the calls for decolonised education that have been echoing around South African university campuses…”


The script makes the subtle argument that this kind of education is a bait-and-switch: Offering access to and credibility within a white man’s world, but instead providing alienation from all worlds that Mtshali once inhabited. The most obvious indication of this is that he has lost command of his mother tongue.

It is difficult to watch the play and not think of the calls for decolonised education that have been echoing around South African university campuses over the past few years. Many students have grown impatient with the ways in which current syllabi are hostile to indigenous African identities and cultures. Given this context, in (s)kin is not merely a poetically choreographed memoir but a stirring call for reform.