Three decades later Mbongeni Ngema’s Asinamali! is still heartbreakingly resonant


Channel24 correspondent Rozanne Els attended the New York African Film Festival premiere of Asinamali! After the screening producer Voza River and actor Rob Kunene spoke about director Mbongeni Ngema’s work. 

New York – One night in the fall of 1986, the venerated art critic Frank Rich went to the Newhouse Theatre on the Upper West Side to see a play called Asinamali! for the New York Times.

Mbongeni Ngema, the play’s South African author, director and almost everything else, was by then a familiar name in New York’s theatre scene. He had collaborated with Percy Mtwa and Barney Simon on Woza Albert! which had finished a New York run only a few years prior, and now he was back with a production that Rich described as a “musical expression of freedom.” (Asinamali means “we have no money” and refers to a slogan attributed to the anti-apartheid activist Msizi Dube.)

Some three decades later, Ngema’s play about the lives and suffering of black inmates in an apartheid-era prison has been adapted into a film that is as beautiful as it is still heartbreakingly resonant. Even though the story is no longer told with the singular energy that exists only on the stage and in the shared space that characters and viewers share breath, Rich’s words still ring true.

“In Asinamali! the cast members…seem to become a single vibrating organism. To call the feat ensemble acting doesn’t quite do it justice. Even as the men spin out their individual tales on the undecorated stage, they remain visually connected – a phalanx of humanity that contracts or expands or twists or breaks like a rubber band, as a given scene demands. The oral fabric matches the visual one. Conventional dialogue flows into choral recitations, a cappella songs and sound effects that can alternately suggest the hubbub of contemporary black townships, the characters’ deepest cultural roots and the desolate wilderness of the itinerant worker’s road.”

Incredibly, Ngema has managed to effectively transform this intimate experience into cinema. Like the play, the film has received great praise since its New York premiere just a few days ago at the city’s African Film Festival. It’s many traumatic moments held the audience in a vice-like grip until they gasped. Later, tears fell freely.


As the lights came back on an eerie stillness lingered, and then – boisterous applause. Many people hoped to hear Ngema speak after the screening in Brooklyn – he was noted in the program – but the director cancelled at the last minute for reasons said to be beyond his control. Two longtime friends and collaborators, producer Voza Rivers, and actor and producer Ron Kunene came in his stead and spoke about Ngema’s work. Kunene also brought news of Ngema’s new project – a musical about Nelson Mandela.

Ngema – who also wrote the much acclaimed musical Sarafina! – not only directed and produced the Asinamali!, but also stars as Comrade Washington, a black struggle activist who returns to South Africa to work with convicts through drama and dance and eventually they stage a musical play in the prison that takes us through how they each of them ended up in this unforgiving place.

Ngema also wrote an original score for the film, and it becomes the beating heart of this iteration.

As he watched the film, says Rivers, he remembered “how Ngema’s does what he does.” “Mbongeni’s vision is so brilliant. He is a genius at creating music, and with all of our struggles, especially for people of colour all around the world, music plays a very important role,” says Rivers. Ngema understands this all too well. He is, after all, also a choreographer, a composer, a musician, a songwriter, and, as Rivers adds, “an unbelievable spirit.”

Kunene was struck by a different memory than Rivers. “I think in some of the scenes here, I couldn’t help but remember what our mother of the struggle did for us. Winnie Mandela was arrested constantly. So, the conditions that you see here, to suffer that…art imitates life. It’s not just a social justice story. It’s a story that’s rooted in Mbongeni’s own experience. He spent a lot of time in jail himself.” He describes the film as remarkable and says it “really shows the vitality and the resilience of the African people facing apartheid. We’ve lived that life.”

It’s tragic that Ngema’s story about oppression and hate is still relevant all across the world, says Rivers. “But it also speaks to the classic nature of his work. We believe that most of his work is timeless. It really captures a moment that is repeated over and over again. [His work] touches a responsive chord in all of us, and when you are exposed to it you feel that you want to do something. It’s motivating.”

Asinamali!’s South African theatrical release is Friday, 3 August. 


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