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Staging a celebration: Guyana’s Jubilee Theatre Festival

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Cheating husbands, quintuplet births, romance, murder… the Jubilee Theatre Festival, part of Guyana’s 50th independence celebrations, had it all.

The festival began in May, when the Theatre Guild staged Playing Chess With A Blind Man by Rae Wiltshire; Come Back to Melda by John Campbell; Some Other Nights by Nicholas Singh; Obeah Koksen by Professor Kenn Dance; Guilty Pleasures by Nicola Moonsammy; Til Death by Tashandra Inniss; Summer Breeze by Linden Isles and White House on Black Street by Clinton Duncan.

I only got my act together for the June programme. And even then, I was sorry to have missed Sauda, written by Mosa Telford, which I heard was excellent. Also The Colour of Rage by Sonia Yarde and A Green Card Marriage by Harold Bascom. But I managed to catch four productions.

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The first, Till Ah Find A Place by Ronald Hollingsworth, was a cracking comedy of infidelity, deception and unwelcome guests. Directed by Sheron Cadogan-Taylor, the play was classic soap-opera territory – man and woman happily married, woman invites friend to stay, man is furious, wife goes away for work, man and friend fight… and end up in bed, chaos ensues. But the sharp writing and energetic performances brought fresh energy to a familiar story, keeping it lively and funny throughout.

The packed audience were delighted; roaring with laughter, tutting with disapproval at some new sign of duplicity, nodding in recognition at familiar scenes. The two leads were excellent. Leslyn BobbSemple, as the homeless friend Donna, moved seemlessly from pitiful victim to bold seductress to scheming chancer. While Mark Kazim put in a brilliant performance as the frustrated husband, Linden, torn between his jet-set wife and live-in lover. The two had great chemistry and rapport, managing to communicate expressively even when reduced to just wildly gesticulating at each other when Linden’s wife’s back was turned. Donna’s boyfriend (played, I believe, by Sean Thompson) also made a well-received cameo, with his low-slung pants and whiney attitude.

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Benjie Darling had a hard act to follow. But the play, written by Paloma Mohammed and directed by Rae Wiltshire, held its own. Colleen Humphrey and Simone Dowding played the two unmarried sisters: one romantic and yearning for children, the other hard-nosed and seemingly with a heart of ice. The best lines, however, were reserved for the Benjie of the title, played by Clinton Duncan. With his tufted beard, sprightly frame and gardener’s vest, Benji was alternately thoughtful and intelligent, and greedy and opportunistic. Whether he was eavesdropping at the side of the house, swaggering importantly around the house or counselling his wife-to-be, Benji always seemed to steal the scene.

Some of the climactic moments, such as when it’s discovered that the meanspirited sister blocked her sibling’s one chance for marriage when she was younger, somehow didn’t feel as dramatic as they could have. Either because they were drowned by the music, delivery, or script. And it felt like the play could have been edited down, to clarify the dialogue in parts and pick up the pace moving. But I enjoyed it – and think it was a remarkable achievement considering that due to rehearsal space, the cast and crew apparently only had a week to prepare the show. With a bit more time and work, this play could really bring the house down.

13350326_241216516252098_7732083654894605317_oThe next night (no rest for the avid theatre goer) saw the return of Frank Pilgrim’s Miriamy – first performed at the Theatre Guild in 1962. But despite the references to telephone operators and gentlemen’s clubs for white visitors (who knows, maybe these still exist in GT…), the play was as fresh as ever. The story centres around the news that a woman on the fictional island of St Midas is due to give birth to quintuplets – but brilliantly this woman, the Miriamy of the title, is never actually seen. Instead we view everything through those around her – the gossips, the lovers, the family and the press.

Directed by Ron Robinson, the production had a wonderful cast. Lloyda Nicholas-Garrett was excellent as the poised, pert and glory-seeking doctor’s wife, Stella Singer. Nikose Layne neatly captured the inquisitive reporter, never without his notepad and always with a nose for a story. While Leon Cummings was superb as the village clerk Desmond, an overly dramatic, self-aggrandising meddler. His expressive eyes and flamboyant gestures, of a cunning man determined to find fame and fortune by any means possible, were comic gold and I found myself throwing my head back in laughter.

All the cast were great in fact, from the lead roles to the smaller parts. particularly the sullen maid Dulcibelle; the brilliantly long-winded village clerk (played by Henry Rodney); and drunken rum-maker Garcia – a brief but memorable appearance from Mark Kazim, again demonstrating his talent for well-timed, physical comedy.

13323618_241225446251205_9057216485885366123_oThe theatre festival ended yesterday with a production of Francis Quamina Farrier’s Journey to Freedom, directed by Godfrey Naughton. Very admirably, the show was free and I hoped the crowds would flock to the National Cultural Centre to see it. Unfortunately the auditorium was only about a third full. Nevertheless, I was hopeful of a good night, having read some of Mr Farrier’s excellent online work.

Part play, part musical, Journey to Freedom was an ambitious undertaking. The aim seemed to be to celebrate and unite Guyanese of all races and backgrounds. There was a kwe kwe ceremony with live drumming, two operatic performances, blasts of Indian music, acoustic Creole Rock from the very talented Gavin Mendonca, contemporary dance, big all-cast music numbers, a solo singing performance… all interspersed with a series of mini dramas set in one close-knit neighbourhood: the reformed boy turned bad; the bush man and his vaqueiro friend; the love-struck sister and the local lothario… there was so much going on that at times it became too much.

The writer clearly had a great deal to say, but this meant some of the characters began to feel a bit like mere instruments to express a particular moral lesson or idea to improve life after independence: start a housing cooperative, join the national service, believe in Guyana’s potential, don’t look to the colonisers… This is all fine – if this is a musical not a play. But I felt it wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. I could see it as a high-kicking, big energy musical. It would be fantastic – a real celebration of Guyana and showcase of its talents. But for this to happen I think the dialogue needs to be chopped down, the music and dance numbers polished till they shine, and the time reduced from what I think was about three hours to a more manageable two.

Critiquing theatre is always hard, especially when you know or have met some of those involved – and you’re aware that the theatre being produced has most likely been made on a shoestring budget with love, dedication and sacrifice. “Go easy on community theatre productions,” is the rule of thumb. But this isn’t amateurish work. I’ve been astounded by the energy and effort put into the festival by the organisers – and by the quality of some of the writing and performances. I’d love to see plays and musicals staged regularly in GT, resources given to support the creatives who make it happen, and theatre promoted as an inclusive form of entertainment.

Speaking of which, I noticed The National Cultural Centre didn’t enforce its strict dress code last night. (At least, I spotted some sleeveless tops in the crowd). I was glad for this. And also for the affordable pricing of the shows throughout the season – $1,000 and above – although I’m sure that’s still prohibitive for some. From this small introduction to Georgetown’s lively and very homegrown theatre scene, I think it’s going in the right direction – and long may that continue.

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

The Playwright Q&A: Bola Agbaje

Bola Agbaje colour. Pic by Brian Would

(ARISELIVE.com, March 2013) Words Carinya Sharples  Photo credit Brian Would

In her Olivier-Award winning debut play Gone Too Far, Bola Agbaje brilliantly captured the lives of young black residents on a London council estate. In her new play, The Burial, the playwright draws on her Nigerian heritage in a satire about a daughter, her late father and his two Nigerian wives.

If that sounds like a Nollywood plotline, it’s no wonder. Raised in London (bar a couple of years in Nigeria), Agbaje is fascinated by Nigerian culture and both the country’s firmly established DVD market and its burgeoning cinema scene, and carried out careful research to write the play.

The Burial is set to open at The Albany theatre in Deptford, South East London, on 2 May. But that’s far from the only ink pot Agbaje has her pen in. She has also written a play, Take A Deep Breath And Breathe – inspired by Aristophanes’ famous female-sex-ban play Lysistrata. The production, performed by young actors from Ovalhouse theatre’s Drama Company, runs from 16-20 April.

In a break between rehearsals and castings, ARISE met Agbaje in the café of the Royal Court Theatre, the launchpad for her first play. Perched on a high stool, she told us all about writing the script for the film adaptation of Gone Too Far, exciting future projects, African Buddhists and much more we couldn’t squeeze in here.

Already a fan of ARISE, she was keen to link up. “My aim is to get my work out into Nigeria so for me this is a good thing,” she declared. “It’s such an emerging market and I want to be part of it from the beginning.” Nigeria, are you listening?

ARISE: How are things going with The Burial so far?
Bola Agbaje: It’s cool. We’ve just finished casting and we start rehearsals next week, so at the moment I’m just redrafting it, because I recently had a play on here [at the Royal Court Theatre] called Belong and if you look on it from outside it was about the Black-Nigerian experience and mixed cultures – so with The Burial I wanted people not to make the assumption that it’s the same as Belong. It’s a totally different style, exploring music, dance and dream sequence and fantasy, which I’ve never done before but a lot of traditional African playwrights – like Wole Soyinka – used to do that in their work. Because we didn’t grow up learning African mythology or anything like that it’s a lot harder to incorporate that into your work. So that’s my challenge with this play.

How are you introducing these new forms? Are you bringing in musicians and choreographers?
Well, I’ve sourced the old music myself because I like talking to my parents, asking them about traditional folk songs and stuff like that and incorporating that in it. And then talking to loads of musicians about how to do it, watching loads of different plays and reading old screenplays from African contemporary playwrights. It’s tough. [There’s been] a lot of research for this play. The others you just kind of write from memory but this one… I don’t want to get it wrong!

With more and more African and Nigerian productions coming to London stages – such as The Winter’s Tale in Yoruba, Feast at the Young Vic and the critically acclaimed Mies Julie (still on at Riverside Studios), do you feel there’s more space for Nigerian theatre?
I think so. It’s important to have those voices. Like with any culture, you want an Irish playwright to tell an Irish story, you want a Scottish playwright to tell a Scottish story and I think it’s the same with Nigerians. For too long it feels like we haven’t had a voice in London. There was a time when you had the Wole Soyinkas, the Chinua Achebes, you had all those great authors who came out and had global recognition, but then after a while it just seemed like it kind of died down completely. So it’s nice that now there are more emerging – like [Nigerian playwright] Janice Okoh, she’s got a play on at the moment [Three Birds] at the Bush Theatre. So there are loads more coming out, and there are loads of Nigerian actors – LOADS! So it’s nice to tell those stories and to be given the platform to tell those stories.

Identity has been a theme throughout your work. In The Burial you’re exploring religious identity too. What made you want to approach that?
I’ve always been interested in religious studies and my mum’s a Muslim, but I don’t practise, so it’s kind of weird in my family – where my mum and my sister are practising Muslims but me and my younger sister are not. And I went to a Catholic school when I was younger, so I’ve been exposed to all different types of religions. But I find it quite fascinating how that has an impact on people’s daily lives; how people think, how people react to certain situations – so I wanted to explore that. Tradition more than religion. Like with The Burial, it’s about what traditions do you follow when someone dies? What do you do? How do you bury someone? Because your religion has an impact.

And you brought Buddhism as well into it. That’s more unusual…
Most Africans aren’t Buddhist so I thought it was an interesting twist. I’ve met a few and you know people have raised eyebrows when someone [goes against] what religion you expect. Like [you anticipate] Christian or Muslim or atheist and then they go ‘Buddhist’ – and you’re like, this is a little bit wrong! ‘How did you get involved in that culture?’ So I thought it was interesting to explore that.

And African culture, music and creativity are hot right now in London…
Of course, completely. Whenever I explore my Nigerian culture it is a bit of making up for the lost time when I was younger and wasn’t so proud of it. My sister’s 18 and I find it so fascinating watching her growing up and she can’t believe there was a time when it wasn’t cool to be African. She’s like ‘How is that possible?!’

“We’re at that stage where it’s not about fitting in, it’s about standing out – and [being African] it’s the thing that gives you an edge”

Why do you think things have changed?
I think there are more of us [Africans] in London, in England, and more people are tapping into that. My parents came over in the 80s and, like a lot of parents, their whole idea was to set up a new life and fit in. Whereas now we’re at that stage where it’s not about fitting in, it’s about standing out – and [being African] it’s the thing that gives you an edge.

What would be your ideal project to work on? A TV series? Another film?
At the moment I’m developing a TV series – actually I’m developing a web series that I’m really keen to get off the ground because I’ve seen loads of web series online. Have I heard of Awkward Black Girl? It’s amazing! There’s also a Nigerian one that comes on at the moment called Gidi Up which is only about 8 minutes long but it’s so fascinating so I want to be a part of that movement.

Have you got a concept in mind?
Yeah but I can’t say yet, it’s not out there – someone could steal the idea. But I’m quite excited about that. And I’d love my [theatre] work to be performed in Nigeria and do more TV and more film stuff. I’m working on a collaborative piece for a film idea with Destiny Ekaragha, she’s the director of Gone Too Far. I’ve known her for a while now, we’re worked together closely on this film so I know what I’m in for. We’ve got a similar sense of humour so it won’t be a shock.

Last October [through 2Far Media] I also produced my own play [House Of Corrections at Riverside Studios]; funded it myself and put it on myself. That was quite an experience, a hard experience – I learned to appreciate other aspects of what makes a play come alive. But I want to do more of that – I got a buzz from it.

Nigeria is big on your radar at the moment. Do you want to travel out there sometime?
I do, I do. I might be going out later on this year because one of the lead actors of Gone Too Far, O.C. Ukeje, is one of the rising Nollywood stars so we want to have a premiere out in Nigeria. That will be kind of cool.

Do you know when Gone Too Far will be released?
No. Before its official opening we’re going to do a series of screenings though. So we’ve got one at the end of the month [March], a couple more in May/June and then officially it launches in October – hopefully through London Film Festival. I’m really excited. It’s a good little film.

Would you consider moving to Lagos for a while?
I’d love to. I’ve got loads of family out there so it wouldn’t be a massive leap, and as I writer I can work anywhere. As long as it’s got electricity and internet [laughs]! But I just want to make my mark here, make a bigger stamp on this place first and go over. The aim is to be global, tough task but that’s the aim! And the great thing about writing, making film or having a play is that it can travel around the world. And that’s what’s exciting for me being a writer – your work can reach so many different people, it can live on. Good work lives on for a long time.

Last year I had a version of my play on in Germany, and in Italy they did a translation of my play Gone Too Far, which was really cool. I went to go and see it and it was so weird watching them speak Italian and not understanding a word they were saying but I knew where they were in the story based on where people were laughing. It was amazing to see, and to see that it worked somewhere else.

You’ve named Wole Soyinka as one of your role models. How do you feel about being a role model yourself now?
I grew up in Peckham and I make no shame of growing up on an estate or coming from that environment but if that motivates one person to go off and do something against the norm then I’ll feel like I’ve done my job… Most of the time what you’re inspired by is seeing someone else doing it, it’s those mirrors that people hold up so you go ‘Oh actually if she can do it I can do it too’. It’s like when we were filming Gone Too Far; my nieces and nephews came on set and it was the first time they’ve ever been on a film set and it was fascinating to watch them see the process of filmmaking and then go ‘I want to be a director. I want to be a writer’ – and that’s how it works really. My nephew saw Destiny directing and was like ‘She’s the boss, I want to be the boss!’

The Burial is at The Albany, London, from 2-11 May 2013. For more details and to book tickets visit www.thealbany.org.uk

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Pulling the strings

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(ARISE magazine, issue 16) After providing the lifelike neighs and nuzzles that have charmed audiences of theatre-hit War Horse, Cape Town’s Handspring Puppets could be forgiven for dismounting for a while. Instead, the team is busy reviving their 20-year-old puppet drama Woyzeck On The Highveld for a US tour and organising a platform for their home town’s Out The Box Festival next year. “It’s a good time for puppetry,” says Basil Jones who co-founded Handspring with Adrian Kohler.

Creating the War Horse puppets was an epic undertaking. First came the research. “We watched videos, visited museums, talked to people who’d seen horses die, listened to recordings of horse sounds,” lists Jones. “We also spent time with the King’s Troop in England, one of the few military regiments that still work with horses and draw gun carriages like they did in WWI.”

The attention to detail paid off. On stage the puppets – made out of carefully-curved strips of cane – are seen whinnying, braying and cantering across the stage like the real thing. To make a full set of War Horse puppets
– including horses, a goose, two or three swallows, crows and cavalry officers – takes around nine months. And with shows pulling in crowds in London, New York, Toronto, Australia, Berlin, not to mention the ongoing UK and US tours, the Cape Town workshop rarely winds down.

Where there was once just Jones, Kohler and a few freelancers, there are now 20 full-time employees and part-time puppeteers touring shows abroad. Recruiting is an organic process thanks to the training programmes Handspring runs for people with no previous experience of making puppets or, sometimes, even working. “We’ve got guys that have come through from the bottom and are now making horse heads, which is highly sophisticated and skilled,” says Jones. “We’re really proud of them.” A new non-profit arm, Handspring Trust, is also reaching out to townships and informal settlements around Cape Town.

handspringpuppet.co.za

African arts, culture + politics

Flashback: March 11 1959. A Raisin In The Sun

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(ARISE magazine, issue 14) On March 11 1959, Lorraine Hansberry sat down inside the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, waiting for her play A Raisin In The Sun to begin. At the time, civil rights activists were intensifying their fight against segregation in the Deep South. Inside the theatre, history was also being made as Broadway prepared to welcome its first play written by an African-American woman.

Despite a talented cast, which included Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands, the Broadway preview on March 10 received a lukewarm reception from its mostly white audience of theatre insiders. As the curtains lifted the following night, the 29-year-old playwright clutched the hand of her producer, Philip Rose, with no idea what the evening held in store.

She needn’t have worried. As the curtain was lowered, the audience roared in appreciation. Even the critics rose to their feet, calling Hansberry to join her cast on stage. “It was the most electric night I spent in the theatre,” Poitier later remembered. A Raisin In The Sun went on to enjoy a run of 500 performances, win a prestigious New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and be nominated for a Tony Award. The cast also reprised their roles for a film adaptation in 1961.

It was a welcome reward for Rose, who had spent more than a year struggling to drum up interest. “The theatre owners were concerned that there would be no black audience,” he later explained. “The other side of the coin was the producers felt if they did get the black audiences the white audiences would stay away.”

In the end, theatregoers of every colour flocked to see what all the fuss was about. James Baldwin wrote: “I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theatre. And the reason was that never before… had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theatre because the theatre had always ignored them.”

Taking its title from Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Deferred, which begins “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?”, the play centres around the Younger family, who are awaiting a life insurance cheque for U$10,000 following the death of the father.

They disagree on how best to spend the money: Mama dreams of a bigger home; her frustrated son, Walter Lee, of hanging up his chauffeur’s cap and opening a liquor store; and her daughter, Beneatha, of becoming a doctor. When the family are offered money to not move into a white neighbourhood, they must decide what is more important: money or dignity.

“Mama, it is a play that tells the truth about people, Negroes and life,” Hansberry wrote to her mother in 1958, “and I think it will help people to understand how we are all just as complicated as they are – and just as mixed up – but above all, that we have among our miserable and downtrodden ranks people who are the very essence of human dignity.”

Through the Nigerian Joseph Asagai and his relationship with Beneatha, Hansberry reflected the growing Afrocentrism of black civil rights campaigners – including herself (Hansberry studied African history with pan-African author W E B Du Bois and later wrote Les Blancs, a play set in the fictitious African nation of Zatembe). It was also, noted Roots’ author Alex Haley, “the first time a large audience had seen and heard an African portrayed as carrying himself with dignity and being, moreover, a primary spokesman for sanity and progress.”

Since 1961, A Raisin In The Sun has returned in many forms including a musical adaptation, Raisin, which won a Tony Award for best musical in 1973, and George C Wolfe’s sketch The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play, which mocked the by now beloved classic. In 2004 the play returned to Broadway for a US$2.6million revival with Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs reprising the role made famous by Poitier. While reviews of Combs’ performance were mixed, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald, who respectively played Mama and Ruth, scooped a Tony Award each and the whole cast also starred in a film version in 2008.

When Hansberry died of cancer in 1965, at the premature age of 34, Martin Luther King sent a message to be read at her funeral: “Ms Hansberry’s commitment of spirit, her creative ability and her profound grasp of the deep social issues confronting the world today will remain an inspiration to generations yet unborn.” The fact that A Raisin In The Sun continues to inspire and instruct students, actors and activists decades later is testament of the veracity of King’s prophetic words.

African arts, culture + politics · London culture

Word play

sudan

(ARISE magazine, issue 14) “All the world’s a stage,” wrote William Shakespeare. Now all the world is taking to the stage as London’s Globe Theatre presents Globe To Globe, an Olympian series featuring all 37 of the bard’s plays staged by 37 international theatre companies in 37 languages. Africa is represented by five productions: The Two Gentlemen of Verona in Shona by Zimbabwe’s Two Gents Productions, The Winter’s Tale in Yoruba by Lagos’ Renegade Theatre, Venus and Adonis by Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble, The Merry Wives of Windsor in Swahili by Bitter Pill and Theatre Company Kenya, and Cymbeline (right) in Juba Arabic by the South Sudan Theatre Company, the first-ever adaptation of Shakespeare into Juba Arabic. The season runs from April 21 to June 9.

globetoglobe.shakespearesglobe.com

African arts, culture + politics

Streets ahead

zoe

(ARISE magazine, issue 12) After storming Broadway and London’s West End with an all-black production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, producer Stephen C Byrd is now assembling a star-studded cast for his upcoming update of another Tennessee Williams classic, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Already involved are Blair Underwood, Boris Kodjoe, Zoe Saldana (pictured), Anika Noni Rose and, possibly, Djimon Hounsou – Byrd says he’s currently looking into signing up the Blood Diamond star. Grammy Award-winning musician and composer Terence Blanchard is onboard to create an original score.

Unlike Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, which starred James Earl Jones, not all the performers in Streetcar are African or African-American. The multiracial cast will also include Hispanic actor Jimmy Smits, Indian actress Sulekha Naidu and a white actress playing Blanche’s best friend. “We wanted to reflect the true culture of
New Orleans as it is today,” explained Byrd. “Streetcar has always been a culturally encoded play, with white
cast members in both the film and other stage productions. This will be the first time we are seeing
this production done with a non-traditional cast on a Broadway and West End stage”.

A Streetcar Named Desire begins a 20-week run on Broadway around June, before moving on to London’s West End. “I’m very excited,” enthuses Byrd. “It’s one of Williams’ most intricate plays, the diamond in his repertoire. The director, Emily Mann, lived with him for a year and has a very visceral feel for his works and how they should be interpreted”. And with March 26 marking what would have been Tennessee Williams’ centenary,
the timing couldn’t be better.

African arts, culture + politics

Double vision

winnie

(ARISE magazine, issue 12) She’s been admired, vilified, imprisoned and tortured, now Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is to be immortalised – on screen and on stage anyway – with both a film and an opera about her set for 2011. Winnie The Opera, a sequel to 2007’s The Passion of Winnie, previews at Pretoria’s State Theatre on April 28.

It explores the dark period in her life when she appeared in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, accused of involvement in murders and beatings carried out by her then-bodyguards. In contrast, upcoming biopic Winnie promises to be “the ultimate women’s movie” (according to its South African director, Darrell Roodt), focusing on the love story between Winnie and Nelson.

Despite initially facing legal threats from Madikizela-Mandela’s lawyers, Roodt is now confident she will “love” the film – although he stressed it won’t shy from controversies. Although critics are concerned this is exactly what will happen. The filmmakers have also received fierce criticism from the Creative Workers Union of South Africa for casting African-American stars Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard in the leads, instead of choosing local talent.

Whether or not you agree with Roodt’s assertion, reported in UK newspaper The Telegraph, that Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to the anti-Apartheid movement was “as extraordinary, if not more” than Nelson Mandela’s, there’s no denying this is going to be Winnie’s year.

http://www.winnietheopera.com