Many will tell you art is meant to interrogate and inspire; to provide a mirror through which society may see herself. Others will simply tell you that art is meant to express whatever stream of consciousness the artist is experiencing at the time, without any social obligation. Regardless of which school of thought one falls under, it is undeniable that what Jefferson Thabalala produces is art: honest expression that interrogates, inspires and reflects. What’s more is that he may truly be one of the most brilliant artistic minds of our time.
It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Jeff’s work. In fact, ever since I saw P.O.E.T.O-type in 2014, I have professionally stalked him from the sidelines of social media and have had the great fortune of receiving his guidance on Human4Human. But this blog is not entirely a J Bobs gush fest, so let’s keep it moving.
The first time I saw P.O.E.T.O-type, I couldn’t stop talking about it. It left me conflicted and torn, and also firmly resolved somehow. In this quest to create “the perfect poet” Jeff asks some really difficult questions about the importance of poetry in relation to the price of bread and class. Using humour and immaculate direction, he forces poets to examine themselves and the current state of poetry in a way that I, personally, feel every poet would be served by doing. He provides a cross-section of poets that is so accurate, one finds it both shocking and disturbing to know at least one of every kind of poet he introduces, albeit shamefully most times. Not only did I find myself in his work, I was also made uncomfortable by what I saw myself to be. And such is the major characteristic of all of Jeff’s work; he has an uncanny ability to reveal us to ourselves without ever sugar-coating anything.
The same goes for J Bobs Live. No holds barred! While watching, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that this show deserves a packed auditorium in Monte Casino or Carnival City. From catchy lyrics that poke fun at the buffoonery of the current state of hip hop, to ballin’ on your father’s credit card, to the laziness of “vernac” mrappaz and poyets… J Bobs calls it all out! “Just because it’s vernac, doesn’t mean it has to be wack”. “What must to, can, happen… Now? Huh?” It’s all hilarious and sad and infuriating; and caused much heated debate between me and my friends; particularly regarding “You want a real man? Why you so fake though?”.
Secret Ballot was intense. Brilliant in that we all know exactly who “The Brotherhood” represents. Nothing is off limits and it is as funny as it is painful! I actually struggled with this play. A lot! It hit home because I remember “The Brotherhood” before it became the monster it is today. Before the audacious looting and misogynistic oversexed cronyism. Jeff mocks, quite eloquently I might add, the social media revolutionaries (“You cannot Instagram the revolution”) and reminds us that not only is Big Brother always watching, but he also doesn’t care because we (the hashtag revolutionaries) are not his target market. Jeff also paints a grim picture of what could (will) happen if (when) people who are pushed too far, collide with those defending “their sugar”. Watching Secret Ballot actually felt as though someone had inserted a knife in the middle of my ribcage without me knowing; and every time I laughed or breathed or cried, I could feel it cut me deeper and deeper.
In August 2014, I approached the Afrikan Freedom Station about staging a show with poets, Sarah Godsell and Mthunzikazi Mbungwana; and musician, Hannah Forster. Bra’ Steve [Mokwena] thought it was a great idea and in September 2014, Human4Human was born. The show at the station went swimmingly and before we could even pat ourselves on the back, Jeff called: “Madam, what are your plans for Human4Human?” Naturally, I fumbled an answer about not having thought that far ahead yet and wanting everything to be organic and blah blah blah. He didn’t buy it. Instead, he pushed us straight into the deep end and offered us a chance to stage the show at the Jo’burg Theatre Space.com under his Kiri Pink Nob (KPN) banner. The show didn’t go so well (to say the least), and as we prepared to lick our wounds, Jeff huddled us into a circle on stage and gave us a breakdown of what worked and what didn’t. He then told us how we could fix what didn’t work. Fast forward two days, Sarah and I are having a strategic planning meeting and, Jeff is introducing us to Monageng “Vice” Motshabi (another inspired artistic gem) and we are preparing for another jump into the deep end. This time, we doggy paddle our way through and begin to swim.
The thing about talent is that it’s not enough. There is no doubt that Jeff is an extraordinary writer and a meticulous director. He also has an impressive ability to take what is familiar – from nursery rhymes and playground games, to popular culture, contemporary politics and/or Elizabethan language – and craft it into sharp-witted magic. But what truly sets Jeff apart is his discipline. If Shakespeare and Gibson Kente had a love child, raised by John Kani, Jeffereson Tshabalala would be it. On his second night performing the very energetic J Bobs Live, at 23:30 he was off to another gig! When others are relaxing, having a drink perhaps, he is observing, writing, creating, plotting his next step towards world domination. He doesn’t wait for opportunity to meet him somewhere, he fetches it at the door and runs with it! His work is honest, hard-hitting, erudite and unpretentious.
All this, and he is still good people. He is generous with his talent and patient with those who don’t grasp his ideas as quickly as he may like. And he has a plan! His genuine love for what he does is inspiring. Mark my words kids, we will be studying and enjoying Jefferson Tshabalala’s work for many years to come.