By Heather Dugmore – The question of biological fathers and stepfathers is explored in ‘The Truth Beneath’, a production by Professor Matlaopane that will be staged at the National Arts Festival Fringe this July.

If you are lovingly raised by your stepfather while your biological father has nothing to do with you; in fact you do not even know that he exists until he turns up one day and announces he is your father, how do you respond? Do you embrace him as your ‘real’ father and sideline the man who has cared for you?

“This deep dilemma motivated me to write The Truth Beneath because in the Zeerust/Lehurutshe region, North West Province, where I live, even if I look after my step child from birth, most people in the community here still say that the biological father is the ‘real’ father. I want people to question this,” explains the production’s writer and director, Professor Matlaopane, a drama teacher, community radio station presenter on Mmabatho FM, counselor and administrator at Ikageleng High School in Zeerust’s Ikageleng Township.

He is deeply committed to developing local acting talent and he helps to develop theatre and dancing at a number of schools, church groups and organisations in his region. All the schools here compete in a cultural event every year, including dance, drama, speech and poetry.

Matlaopane stages his productions at local and national venues, and at provincial and national festivals, including North West’s Cultural Calabash, the Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom and the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

The Truth Beneath opened at the Ikageleng Community Hall on Saturday 27 May where the audience voiced their fury at the absent biological father. When the child, now an adult, slaps her biological father for his presumption in returning to disrupt the happy life she has lived with her mother and stepfather, the audience shouted ‘slap him again!’

“I write true-to-life stories that affect people because these issues are very much part of our lives,” Matlaopane explains. Another production of his, Lerato, is about a teenager trapped in drugs and alcohol.

Matlaopane was inspired to pursue a theatre career after “this gentleman called Gibson Kente brought performances like Mahlomola to our different townships in the late 1970s.” Soweto-based playwright Kente (1932 – 2004) is heralded as the father of township theatre in South Africa. His plays were the voice of township life and he created exuberant township musicals such as Manana, the Jazz Prophet and Sikalo, which were a highly popular theatre genre during apartheid.

Many people feel that township theatre, this wonderful vehicle of laugher, satire, self-questioning and sharing in each other’s hopes and disappointments, has largely been lost, but it is alive and well in Zeerust through the efforts of Matlaopane. He takes a theatre or dance production from the township to the NAF Fringe every year. Often it means funding it out of his own pocket, at a cost of R30 000, which includes staging the production, and travel, food and accommodation for the cast, and stand-by cast.

This year is different because he is one of 12 recipients of an Arts and Culture Trust grant, which he is using to fund their NAF Fringe production. “A local high school, Motswedi High, is also helping with the transport so 2017 will be the best year ever for me,” he says.

The 12 recipients were selected from 688 applications from all nine provinces in this round of ACT funding. ACT is South Africa’s premier independent arts funding and development agency, funded by the Nedbank Arts Affinity with the aim of extending arts and culture opportunities to all communities.

“What I like about drama is that it allows you to be any person and imagine anything,” Matlaopane says. “That is why I love going to the Grahamstown Festival, I get such inspiration and it is too wonderful to see creative people doing something new and amazing every year. It is also such a good opportunity to develop my own work further, and to maybe one day get the opportunity to take my productions to Germany or other festivals in other countries abroad.”

In The Truth Beneath, the four main characters include current and former high school learners from two high schools in Zeerust, all of whom will be performing at the NAF Fringe for the first time: Warona Tau from Motswedi High plays Mpho and Kgotso Tlalang, also from Motswedi High plays Daniel. Letlhogonolo ‘Hlouks’ Ramogale, formerly from Ikageleng High, plays Peloyatau. Tshetsama Talakgale, also a former Ikageleng High learner, plays Nomsa, affectionately known as Mmampho.

The story line is that Nomsa is in Grade 12 at Vryburg High School when she meets Daniel, a boy from a wealthy family. They fall in love and after she matriculates she and Daniel go to his family home. She falls pregnant but Daniel’s father is against their relationship. Daniel does not stand up for her, and when she leaves him four months into her pregnancy he does not pursue her. Soon after, Nomsa meets and marries Peloyatau from Klerksdorp who raises baby Mpho, as his own.

The story has several emotional twists and turns but the crux is that when Mpho eventually graduates from medical school, Daniel reappears and announces he is her father. It is an enormous shock for the whole family, and Mpho must decide where she stands: with her stepfather or with her biological father.

This true-to-life South African story will be staged from the 5-9 July at the 2017 National Arts Festival Fringe. The Festival takes place from the 29 June – 9 July this year.