THE emotive Sotho female initiation, Lebollo, is among local rites shrouded in mystery, controversy and misinterpretation. Writer and director, Lebo "Thope" Leisa, is thriving on controversy and sends tongues wagging with a production based around the initiation.
Paleho, the Sotho musical, aims to draw the audience into the sacred world of this important rite of passage for females in the Sotho culture. The play takes theatre revelers though the journey of a young Sotho woman who finds herself in the "controversial" female initiation schools by default, according to the writer. In an interview, Leisa said she was well aware of the controversy that might trial the production, owing to the secrecy around such rites. She is thus unfazed by the controversy following "Inxeba" a film zooming in the Xhosa initiation.
"Controversy sells. And I love it," she chuckles. "I'm going tell my story as it is. Yet I'm not going reveal any secrecy. My show has got nothing to do with girls' initiation but everything to do with knowing ourselves. It just a show set in the background of girls initiation and addresses issues of cultural and religious conflict, incest, abuses and family secrets," she added in an interview. The playwright emphasizes her respect of the Lebollo. "I believe it's a culture that is there to be respected and embraced. My intention is not to bring ethical or unethical judgment towards the practice but to stimulate debate within society. It introspect our own cultural practice," Leisa said. "Paleho" loosely translates to "fugitive" in English. The production is based on the life of a young girl who is on a quest for self-identity. When permitting herself a chance to fully understand who she is, through sheer determination, her family's secrets are uncovered. The audience is drawn into a sacred world of drama, music and rituals of the Basotho female initiates. "There was a need for us to tell our own stories instead of waiting for someone from another culture or country to come and distort it. We are Basotho, this is who we are and we need to tell our own stories. When we started, it was difficult to tap into this subject because of the high wall that has been built around it," Leisa said. The Standard Bank Standing Ovation award-winning musical play at the State Theatre in Pretoria is billed to captivate audiences until November 5. The musical features Free State based talent made up of a 13 all-actress cast. Volley Nchabeleng from Pretoria brings his own unique fusion of indigenous instruments into the show. "Paleho" has been immortalized into a book, with a film based on the play expected to hit the big screen by 2019. This Free State-brewed production was conceptualised for the first time in 2009. The writer says the musical was motivated by wanting to tell Sesotho stories and expose people to female initiation. Nthabiseng Mojaki, who portrays the character of an initiation school teacher (Manoko), reckons playing her part was the most challenging role she has had to play in her career. "The character is very different to me. She is ruthless, something I am not. Everything was a bit overwhelming. It tested me to the core," Mojaki said. The play has just been an integral part of the 20th edition of Mangaung Arts and Culture Festival (MACUFE) and was shown at the Andre Huguenot stage early October. It won the Standard Bank Standing Ovation at Grahamstown in 2016, and has been performed at prestigious platforms like Botho Pan African Arts Festival in Durban, Cape Town Spiritual Arts Festival, and Maitisong Festival in Botswana as at Matjhabeng International College in Lesotho. Leisa, the brains behind "Paleho" is a theatre maker, mentor, and performing artist bringing 13 years of professional experience in the arts industry. Also Managing Director of Thope Productions, she is also an arts activist and has advocacy passion for the empowerment of women in the sector. She is also the Secretary General for a non-profit organisation audaciously called Free State Wombman in Theatre. Look out for her Sesotho poetry book to be published in 2018 as well as her work featured in a poetry anthology titled "Free State of Mind" and her input in an Afrojazz/soul album called "Qamata" by Ntsiki Ndzume.