Twin talent takes to the Durban stage
Identical twins Musawenkosi and Bongumusa Shabalala create their new theatrical dramas on a single laptop, one typing his own thoughts that then seamlessly segue into the other's oral narrative and back again.
To see the world in harmony as a twin, they say, you look though two lenses and see one image, as you would with binoculars.
Izipopolo, Zulu for binoculars, is the name of their latest piece, due to run at The Playhouse Loft Theatre from May 12 to 14.
The two-hander is a collaboration between multi-award winning theatre-maker and director Neil Coppen (Tin Bucket Drum, Animal Farm) and the Shabalala brothers who play twins Thabo and Thabani.
Into the story of brotherhood, loss and love is embroidered the myriad myths and fables used by societies over time to make sense of the unusual phenomenon of "twinship".
It's not the brothers' first foray into making sense of their intertwined identities. Brothers, a play about twin brothers who grow up together but end up as enemies, played to great acclaim at the Durban Musho festival in 2013 and then toured the country.
When Linda Bukhosini, CEO and artistic director of the Durban Playhouse Company saw it at Pretoria's State Theatre, she commissioned the Shabalalas to develop the piece further for the Playhouse's annual New Stages season.
"She said we needed to develop it further," says Musawenkosi, "and offered us the opportunity of choosing someone to work with. We immediately chose Neil Coppen."
The brothers had previously worked with Coppen on a piece about sex trafficking called To Be Like This Rock, which won the Standard Bank Ovation Award at the 2011 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.
They also worked with him on Secrets from the Drawer, through the NGO they founded in 2002, the Umlazi-based Umsindo Theatre Projects. What had begun as a small, community-based project now boasts a core group of 30 highly skilled resident performers and three fulltime artistic directors. Secrets was the first community theatre group accepted on to the National Arts Festival's Arena programme.
Coppen says the creation of Izipopolo has been "a real treat".
"We were given four weeks to create the two-hander - it's usually less than half that - plus we had an eight-month drafting process.
"I had seen Brothers. It was great, but it had had a long life. We took elements from it and then played around with the concept of twins and the different myths and beliefs. We spoke for hours about the idea and mystery of twins."
Coppen says directing the twins has been a unique experience.
"Watching the synergy between them as they work, the way they plug into each other emotionally, how they pick up on a note and run with it together - it's compelling."
"We don't just look the same," says Musawenkosi, "we do everything together. We buy clothes together and dress the same, we fight a lot, but our fights are two minutes long and then are forgotten."
In the play one twin dies, but his spirit will not leave the other alone.
What both Shabalalas fear the most is losing the other. "From the moment we were created in the womb we have been inseparable. The message of the play is: take care of your own. The time will come when you lose them, so love them dearly."
The brothers were separated just once when Bongumusa went to the Netherlands for three months.
"We spoke every day," he says. "We had to be in contact every day. It was very difficult. We never want to live apart."
Adds Musawenkosi: "A lot of our story is in the play, but it is not a story about us."
For Coppen, the relationship between twins is the greatest platonic love story of all. "You don't get a greater level of connection. I read a lot of literature about twins, including that when you lose a twin it's the first time in your life that you operate as an individual.
"I'd never thought about that."
• This article was originally published in The Times.