• Christopher McHale

Phiri! The musical lost to time



When I was a teenager I lived in Johannesburg, at the height of the apartheid era. I hated the suffering I saw. When I met the director Barney Simon, he helped me find a way to deal with it--by working on a musical. Not just any musical, a musical from the dusty streets of the township Soweto, PHIRI!, a lost musical that became legend in the awful history of this time. Here's the story.


Follow your instinct

The wooden stairs creak as I climb a long flight. I’m taking up the director Barney Simon’s invitation to visit a rehearsal of the show he’s putting together, Phiri. It’s been on mind to help. I want to get closer to the music.


When I reach the top, there’s a long wall of photographs. There’s a picture of the writer Athol Fugard. This is a theater company he helped create called the Phoenix Players, in this creaky old place called Dorkay House. At the end of the hallway is a glass door.


I open the door and slip inside. I want to melt against the plaster walls. These people are working and I don’t want to disturb them. Barney Simon walks in front of a large group of men and women.


We have three weeks, he says. We need to get this right.


Barney is getting the group ready for a scene.


Think about this, he says, Phiri is a gangster. He’s a trickster. He pretends he is dying to scam money out of your pocket. Standing against this greedy boss is Mamabella. She is a powerful woman. She is a queen. She stands for a certain township power. Different from the police. Different from the gangsters. The power of a powerful woman. A woman who brushes the dust from her feet and insists you respect her. This is her song.


Sing it with power, musical director Mackay Davashe adds.


And love, Barney says. That is Mamabella’s power. Love.


Cyril is in a corner with a small amp at his feet. Mackay conducts the singers. The room fills with the Mamabella song.


The musical Phiri is an adaptation of the Ben Johnson play, Volpone, a seventeenth century play about money and how the pursuit of it makes people fools.


Barney Simon comes over to greet me.


It’s good you are here, he says. I was wondering if you could help us.

Overcoming resistance

Two days later, I’m in my car heading north to the capital city of Pretoria. The plan for Phiri is to perform in the townships and then bring it to Johannesburg and perform it to white audiences. My job is to get all the permits to make this happen, and to do that, I need to go to Pretoria to fill out government forms. I think Barney imagines my status as a diplomat’s son might help put an aura of American government approval around the enterprise.


I’m not sure of all that. I think I might look like a kid to these government bureaucrats. I put on a sport jacket and tie to do my best fake diplomat routine. Nobody’s going to buy it, but I can’t see it hurts either. It doesn’t hurt being white as well.


I walk through these huge marble corridors. People glance at me as I pass. I don’t exactly fit into this tight bureaucracy, but I’m familiar with how governments work. It’s a little intimidating standing in front of a frosted window with the word ‘Minister’ painted across the glass. I think Barney’s looking for some magic to get all this sorted out.


I knock.


Inside, a woman sits behind a wooden counter. I explain why I’m there.


We’re expecting you, she says, and drops a tall stack of forms on the counter. You need to fill these out.


I ask her for a pen and she gives me a long look.


You didn’t bring a pen?


She puts a second stack of papers on the counter, and a third.


I need everything filled out in triplicate. She holds a pen in her hand.


Can I have some carbon copy paper, I ask.


Everything in original ink, she says, and hands me the pen, waves it back and forth in her fingers like she’s granting me a wish and I should be grateful. Give it back when you’re finished, she says.


Forms are tough for me. I’m dyslexic and have ADD. It’s difficult for me to focus, but the woman’s prissy attitude makes me want to drop it all filled out properly on her desk. I methodically work through the forms. I have a small notebook of phone numbers and addresses Barney gave me, and some language he says I should use in descriptions.


Call it ‘Bantu Education Programme’ he writes. A 17th literary play from the reign of King James. Barney explains King James is important to include. It’ll remind them of the King James Bible. He says it’ll help.


I settle in to fill out the forms. Can I have a chair, I ask.


No, she says, and this office closes at four. You have forty minutes. If you don’t finish, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.


My hand cramps as I write. I make a mistake and ask for a replacement page. She takes the papers from me and tears them up, hands me a new set. I only need a single page, I say.


I can’t hand out single pages, she says.


She hands me a new set of forms, and I begin again. I’m only halfway through when she stands up.


Have you finished, she asks. I shake my head. Well, you’ll have to come back tomorrow. We open at nine.


She stands there staring at me while I swallow my words. I need to get by this woman and her paperwork for the sake of the show.


Can I take them home and return them tomorrow, I ask.


Absolutely not, she says.


Bypassing emotion

The next morning, I’m back on the road to Pretoria. The N-1 highway is a straight cut across the high veldt. I pass a car accident and see a beautiful young African woman lying dead on the asphalt. A thin trickle of blood runs from her head across the blacktop. Her lifeless eyes stare at the sky.


Please be patient with me as I work through these memories, how they imprint on my brain, how they swirl around and take over. Sometimes I drift. The face of this woman, so beautiful in her sudden death. So innocent in her choice to step in front of a car traveling sixty miles per hour. People arrive from the bush every day in Johannesburg. They don’t know about the urban world around them. They don’t understand how fast cars move.


How old is she? Nineteen? Twenty? How long ago? Fifty years? And she never leaves me. She comes to me sometimes in the oddest moments. She is there. The bright sky in her eyes, her lips parted. No pain. No sorrow. No regret. Life gone from her. A line of cars rolling slowly past her asphalt bier.


Moving forward


I arrive back in this government city of rolling hills and jacaranda trees. Climb the steps up to the sprawling government building, a cold neoclassical style, a huge flat roof, perfectly symmetrical wings on each side, and inside, no decor except an occasional quasi-Renaissance oil portrait, the kind supposedly great men and financiers commission to make themselves feel important and immortal. Look what I have achieved, their eyes say. Fleshy jowls and receding hairlines. Striped cloth and buttoned vests.


You forgot about the black ink, the Ministry woman says.


I’m back in the office getting ready to get back to work. I’ve brought my pen, but it has blue ink.


The forms must be black ink, she says. She can’t lend me a pen this morning. Yesterday was an emergency, she says, an exception. Today you know better.


Back into the long corridors, out to the car and drive around Pretoria until I find a little stationery shop, where I buy pens.


Black ink, I tell the shop owner. Next door to the stationery store is a restaurant. I buy a cup of coffee, a heavy scent, laced with chicory, but caffeine armor against the ministry woman and her mountains of paper.


In the townships I can buy a permit straight from the police, he says. They don’t care what happens at night in the townships as long as people don’t get killed. And even then.

Paperwork is my nightmare. My heroes are accountants, bank tellers, record keepers, clerks. I suppose the ministry woman is a hero, putting me to the test, demanding I rise to the task she performs effortlessly. She insists on only the best from me. No mistakes. Grimly, I set my teeth and begin, line by line, black ink, no mistakes, everything notated and certified and correctly spelled, legible.


She goes through each page. She makes three tidy stacks and looks up. We will be in touch about the permits.


How long, I ask.


Four to six weeks, she answers.


I explain I need them today.


Not possible, she says.


There must be some way. We have a show in a couple of weeks. She fixes me with heavy eyes, then asks where.


Diepsloot, I answer.


Now the stare goes icy.


A location? You need to go to the Bantu Affairs Ministry. The best I can do for you is issue a temporary permit for European areas. Do you want a temporary permit?


I want any lifeline offered. I nod my head. My temporary permit feels like gold in my hand. I rush back down the granite steps outside the government building and flee.


Back in the Phiri rehearsal room, Barney Simon says I did a good job.


In the townships I can buy a permit straight from the police, he says. They don’t care what happens at night in the townships as long as people don’t get killed. And even then.


He holds up the temporary permit. This is what we need, he says, to move around the city, and get things rolling. One piece of paper can tie them in knots and by the time they sort it out, we’ll be a hit and stopping us is more difficult.


Capture the vibe before the vibe captures you

The next morning, the cast and band goes into a recording studio. It’s my first time in a recording studio. I watch the engineer place the microphones around the room; the band sets up and the engineer place microphones near each player, then roll padded walls around them. Mackay Davashe explains to the cast they are going to go through each song.


Think of it like a performance, he says. We need to get the songs right the first time. We don’t have too much money for this, he adds.


How much money is this, a woman asks.


Too much, Mackay answers. It’s important we get it right first time. Ready?


The cast and band focus and record every song in the musical in a couple of hours.


I come across this recording years later. It is alive, fresh, urgent, real. I can hear the room in the recording. They capture the blood of the musical. I can see the players. Mackay playing his tenor, Cyril on guitar, Nelson Magwaza on drums, Ernest Mothle on bass Barney Rachebane on saxophone, with Zacariah Nestle and Themba Koyani. I can see Sophie Mgcina at the microphone singing her Mamabella song, the chorus gather behind her.


Phiri, a Soweto con artist, pretends to be on his deathbed. I am without an heir, Phiri says, I must leave my money to someone. People come from all over the township hoping to be made heir to his wealth. His friend Mutla collects bribes from all the people. Pick me they say as they slip Mutla cash. Phiri and Mutla love this scheme. But shebeen-queen Mamabele is pregnant and tired of struggling for money. She wants a future for her child. She steps into the process. A dead man strikes her as the perfect husband.


The scam is Phiri has his will read at his funeral, and leaves everything to Mutla, and leaps out of the coffin like a demon-spirit and chases everyone away with a sjambok. But Mamabele is no fool and brings a police officer to the reading of the will. Phiri stays in the coffin and later runs off to one of the homelands to hide, while Mutla shares Phiri’s wealth with the people on the street.


They rehearse the show every day. Barney marking the floors with tape, moving people around, explaining the scenes. I drive out to a township with the stage manager, a man named Joshua. We’re going to check out the first venue in a small location to the south. Joshua sits in the back seat.


It’s best for us if I’m back here, Joshua says. The police do not want to see a black man in the passenger seat.


The venue is a small community hall, but the stage is big enough and we copy Barney’s technique of marking the floor. I look out at the seats.


Have we sold any tickets, I ask.


Oh, we sold all the tickets for Phiri in minutes, Joshua says. There are stars in the cast. Every one. Famous musicians and performers. They’ve been talking in the townships of Phiri for months.


The only performers I know are the musicians, but the music and singing in Phiri are riveting. It doesn’t surprise me to learn these are famous actors and singers. I’m walking through a world and I don’t know a thing about it.


Back in the car, we’re pulled over by police as we leave the township. The cop looks over my diplomatic passport.


American, he asks. I nod my head.


We don’t want Americans going into the location. It’s not safe.


I’m fine, I’m working, I say. I explain about the musical.


Phiri, the cop says. Who is he, pointing to Joshua in the back seat.


The stage manager, I say.


He’s the manager, the cop asks. How is that?


The cop signals Joshua to get out. He asks Joshua for his pass. We stand beside the busy road as the cops talk the matter over, then they hand me back my passport. They take Joshua over to their car and put him in the back seat.


What are you doing, I ask. Irregularities with his pass, the cop says. You’re free to go. Don’t go back to the location. It’s for your own safety.


Joshua is with me, I say. He’s under my diplomatic protection.


The cop leans into me. Look, he says, I don’t know what you’re doing, but this is no game. They’re dangerous people in the location, communists, gangs. They would love to get their hands on a white American man. We can’t protect you in there. This is not America.


Three days later, Joshua shows back up at Dorkay House.


What happened, I ask.


They kept me in jail for two days, he explains, and fed me like a king. I expected they were giving me my last meal, but that’s all they did. Fed me for two days and then let me go.


They do that, Barney tells me, they terrorize people with fried chicken and lovely delicious meals. People sit there and don’t know what is going to happen. But just feeding them and releasing them with no explanation gets inside people’s heads. It makes them jumpy. It shows people the police power. That’s the point.

Out of the crucible of pain come whispers of hope. The vibrant beats, the harmonic lilt tightly weaved, the bright melodies. Oppression is a high-spirited music.

The show packs up and heads to the township for opening night. I stand along the wall and watch the audience. I’m used to a dark quiet theater during performances. Even a cough is too much. This is different. The crowd is loud and comments on every part of the story on stage. They question the motives of the actors. Why are they doing that? She must be a fool not to see what a criminal that man is. You should watch your back, woman. They shout comments, and laugh at the jokes, repeat them to make sure everybody heard them, and stand and applaud lines, dance in the aisles.


We perform the show in several townships, then head into Johannesburg. The company has booked the theater at the University of Witwatersrand. The Wits campus is in a neutral zone. The university gets away with many transgressions. But Phiri is a transgression too far.


The opening night performance rattles the walls. Phiri swings around a fierce vocal axis. The singers and dancers tell their story with passion. Great oppression produces great music. Simon has used the classic Ben Johnson story to reveal some harsh truths about township life.


The next morning the Rand Daily Mail, the local English newspaper, calls Phiri biting social commentary. Rather than being ‘Bantu Education in 17th century literature,’ Phiri is revolutionary, powerfully subversive. The songs bounce off the rafters, but that opening night in Johannesburg is the last night we hear the musical. The government censors shut the show down the next day and the musical is lost to history.


Out of the crucible of pain come whispers of hope. The vibrant beats, the harmonic lilt tightly weaved, the bright melodies. Oppression is a high-spirited music. This high-veldt culture navigates as best it can from racist jackboot politics to a free-for-all in the dense Johannesburg streets.


I don't know where all this is going. It's been a bloody ride, but the hope I see today was birthed in outbursts like Phiri, and I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to spend some time with these exceptional people and their beautiful music.



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