Nkoli: The Vogue Opera – the making of a musical about a queer liberation activist in South Africa

21 November 2023 - 12:06 By Gwen Ansell
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June 08, 1994. Simon Nkoli, anti-apartheid, gay rights and AIDS activist.
June 08, 1994. Simon Nkoli, anti-apartheid, gay rights and AIDS activist.
Image: Arishad Satter. © Sunday Times/ File photo

The history of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid (separatist white minority rule) is taught only through the broadest of brushstrokes in the country’s schools. So might music be a way to bring the story of one anti-apartheid activist alive for a new generation? And when that activist is a Black gay man, Simon Nkoli (1957-1998), how do you reclaim his story from the stereotypes all of those labels potentially carry?

Those were the challenges facing South African composer Philip Miller when he began work on what became Nkoli: The Vogue Opera, on at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg this month. As part of my ongoing research into South African music, I interviewed Miller and members of the company about how Nkoli came to the stage.

Why the musical matters

The story was personally and politically important to Miller, who knew Nkoli:

We’d be at the Skyline; Simon would have a dance, have fun – and also be an Aids activist, talking to people about condoms.

(Skyline was a gay bar in downtown Johannesburg that drew a racially mixed clientele during apartheid.) Miller was horrified that someone who had played a vital role in gay rights being enshrined in the South African constitution – the first African nation to do so – was, today, so little known.

Nkoli also co-founded Johannesburg Pride, the first pride march in Africa. “That knowledge,” says Miller, “can be revolutionary and inspirational for today’s collective struggles too.” It prompts a re-think of the individualism sometimes attached to identity issues.

Miller’s first thought was an opera – “but most young people wouldn’t dream of going to the opera!” He considered a score incorporating disco and the South African pop of the era, which Nkoli loved (as his letters from prison revealed). Nkoli had been imprisoned alongside 11 other activists after the Delmas Treason Trial and came out as gay in prison, forcing the liberation movement to acknowledge queers and influencing the freedoms later enshrined in the constitution. Miller also considered rap – “which in some ways serves the same function as operatic recitative, but more interestingly”.

Choral protest songs – a key sonic component of Nkoli’s time in the leadership of Cosas, the anti-apartheid Congress of South African Students – also had to be heard.

Vogueing meets opera

Then Miller looked at the African-American queer tradition of vogueing (a stylised queer dance display adopting and subverting catwalk model poses) with a soundtrack rooted in disco but more electronic, with beats kicking harder. South Africa’s LGBTIQ+ community had a similar tradition in beauty pageants such as Miss Glow Vaal, which Nkoli had helped organise. TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, plus the use of vogueing by artists such as US pop star Beyoncé in her Renaissance tour, mean the format’s appeal now extends to young South Africans of all identities. But the score Miller created from those diverse inspirations had to be synthesis, not pastiche.

A team came together, including many longtime Miller collaborators and, eventually, a full 26-member theatre ensemble, many youthful and drawn from the LGBTQI+ community. They include South African rap lyricist Gyre and UK guest Rikki Beadle-Blair as director and dramaturge. Beadle-Blair is a performer, director and award-winning playwright, as well as a queer rights and health activist and the host of UK vogueing balls.

But even more mature cast members, such as Bongani Kubheka (playing Delmas trialist Gcina Malindi, who defended Nkoli from gender-based harassment in jail) came to the script knowing very little of Nkoli’s story. He says:

I didn’t even know there was a queer activist in the struggle! It’s certainly broadened my perspectives on our history.

Long walk to stage

The project began as a 2020 workshopped production first titled GLOW (after the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand), shaped by a collective process and careful listening to many who had known and worked with Nkoli. These included Beverly Ditsie, former Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron, Nkoli’s defence lawyer Caroline Heaton-Nicholls and Nkoli’s mother, Elizabeth Nkoli.

Consultation reinforced an acute awareness of the responsibility the production carried. “Even the protest songs were very carefully chosen,” says Miller. “We use Yindlela (Inde Yendlela), which had been appropriated by (former president) Jacob Zuma. We re-appropriate it back. The lyrics allude to the long walk to freedom, and underline that a) we haven’t got there yet; b) nobody told us it’d take so long, and c) LGBTIQ+ people have the right to ‘sissy that walk’!”

Miller recalls “massive debates” in the team about every aspect of the show. He’s not, he says, creating hagiography, and from the conversations with Ditsie came an honest representation of the blind spots that even men like Nkoli had about women’s struggles. The conversations with Elizabeth also created what cast members experience as one of the most moving arias, when singer Ann Masina, playing Elizabeth, recalls her hopes and fears for her son, and reflects that despite his role, she still lives in Sebokeng, dependent on a government grant.

Masina says the song sometimes makes her sob. She deals with those emotions during rehearsals “so I can bring the power but not the breaking-down to the stage”.

The importance of joy

There’s joy in the music, too: music director Tshegofatso Moeng confesses to “some moments when I just want to stop conducting and dance!”

And for Miller, that joy is vital. Vogueing’s assertions of joy and excellence, he says, defy repressive straight sensibilities and are part of its revolutionary potential. “Vogueing’s display categories declare: 'I can be anybody I want to be’. But I’ve created some music that deliberately crashes against that ‘walking the runway’, to create a subversive tension.” One song declares: “Coming out is not a Diana Ross song.”

Gwen Ansell : Associate of the Gordon Institute for Business Science, University of Pretoria

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