New show ‘GLOW’ celebrates SA’s queer freedom fighter, Simon Nkoli

It tells the story of the gay rights and anti-apartheid activist through a fusion of disco, hip hop, rap, protest songs, opera, drag culture and film

23 October 2022 - 00:03
By S'bonakaliso Nene
The cast of ‘GLOW: The Life and Trials of Simon Nkoli’ fronted by the rapper, Gyre. Mark Lewis
Image: Mark Lewis The cast of ‘GLOW: The Life and Trials of Simon Nkoli’ fronted by the rapper, Gyre. Mark Lewis

After nine relentless days of rehearsal, the second workshop of GLOW: The Life and Trials of Simon Nkoli culminated in a showcase at The Nest on October 14. As stage hands began to dismantle the runway-inspired stage after a rousing reception from guests, a quiet yet sturdy sense of accomplishment engulfed those who'd participated.

The first workshop in 2021 was a more intimate affair. A tight yet resourceful studio in Linden, Johannesburg, had been transformed into a mega-hub for queer creation. Creator and composer Philip Miller had assembled his most trusted creatives to tell the story of one of SA's most prominent LGBTQIA+ activists, Simon Nkoli.

A queer icon who was in equal measure an anti-apartheid activist, Nkoli's contributions to society were as colourful as his character. So it's befitting that such an unusual life be eulogised in an equally queer fashion. What better way than through a vogue opera.

GLOW is part-opera, part-vogue ball. The production breaks the mould of what people think opera is: vogueing, drag balls, lip-syncing, film segments, archive and rap are combined with hard-hitting South African protest songs and melodies.

Producer Harriet Perlman describes the production as “lush arias and rousing choruses colliding with fragments of sound recordings and video archive”.  The Yizo Yizo and Vaya producer says “it moves from the contemporary black queer vogueing scene in South Africa, to township gay life in bars and shebeens, to beauty contests and protests, courtrooms and prison cells”.

Having encountered Nkoli at the height of Skyline — a popular queer club in Hillbrow in the 1980s and '90s — Miller’s conviction to tell this queer tale hinged on its ability to resonate with today's youth. “My passion is to make a unique multimedia opera that makes an impact with young audiences,” says Miller.

Simon Nkoli, anti-apartheid, gay and AIDS activist.
Image: Arishad Satter/Sunday Times Simon Nkoli, anti-apartheid, gay and AIDS activist.

The interconnectedness of Nkoli's  legend lies in the perpetual need to codify, through multiple medians, the lived black queer experience. Having dedicated this phase of my artistic and vocational expression to the celebration of the same ideal, my collaboration with Miller as co-lyricist was seamless.

My debut project, Queernomics, is a hip hop/rap album that tells the nuanced experiences of a contemporary South African black gay man. Having heard this, it became clear to Miller that he and I share a creative methodology; that is, to tell queer stories in ways and medians as queer as queerness itself.

The unlikely marriage of opera and hip hop proved a masterstroke as it localised Nkoli's  narrative in an unequivocally LGBTQIA+ language and form. When asked to describe the production I say, “Imagine Hamilton had a baby with Netflix’s Pose, in Sebokeng — that's GLOW”.

The deliberate “queerification” of opera gives GLOW its pronounced charisma. With songs such as Super Queer containing the lyrics “you slay Queen, you amaze Queen. Popped that pussy just to be seen”, the show gives classical music a breath of fresh air in lyrical and sonic cadence.

Where the 2021 workshop centred on the development of the libretto (music score and lyrics), this year’s gathering aimed to shape the narrative from its episodic nature into a cohesive story. Key was the introduction of world renowned Gregory Maqoma as choreographer and director.

His mandate to the singers, dancers and crew was clear. This workshop was to be used to play. The collaborative nature of the space dictated freedom of expression be the core principle throughout.

From fun “Pandora-box” runways to meticulous dance rehearsals, Maqoma brought texture to the development of the show, effortlessly juxtaposing the happiness brewed through Nkoli's strength against the struggles of his strife.

“The life of Simon Nkoli reflects a struggle of a gay man at odds with society,” Maqoma says. “The reflection is felt in all minority groups who struggle with acceptance and tolerance all over the world.”

Iwando Dutyulwa performs in GLOW.
Image: Mark Lewis Iwando Dutyulwa Iwando Dutyulwa performs in GLOW.

Peppered with colour and charm, the ground-breaking show has been years in the making. With research led by doctoral candidate and author of Boy on the Run Welcome Lishivha, GLOW dives deeply into significant junctures in Nkoli's life through the notion of “coming out”.

From coming out as gay to his mother at home and fellow Delmas treason trialists while in jail, and declaring his HIV status, Nkoli's refusal to remain a victim created an arc to a heroic tale of queer self-love.

GLOW could not be more timely,” Miller says, “as we see across the world a right-wing backlash of homophobia, transphobia and hate crimes.”

Simbone Qonya with cast members in GLOW, left, and the rapper Gwyre, fronting in the same show, right.
Image: Mark Lewis Simbone Qonya with cast members in GLOW, left, and the rapper Gwyre, fronting in the same show, right.

In placing the telling of Nkoli's  life in what is traditionally a white and Western art form such as opera, it emphasises the need to disrupt the status quo, something Nkoli did without apprehension. Miller adds that he is “a gay artist and activist who has always worked with the power of arts and music to promote issues of social justice”.

This dedication to sincere story telling compelled that honest and hard-hitting truths of Nkoli's  experiences and his character are told. Through the song Separation of Trials, honest accounts of the prejudice attributed to his sexuality encountered from fellow comrades are tackled.

The new song Any Other Business doesn't shy away from speaking to the misogyny that would prove Nkoli's  greatest hubris and ultimately distance him from friend and fellow activist Beverley Ditsie. “It’s not only a story of a gay man, it's a story of humanity and restoration of dignity and acceptance to all who suffer prejudice,” says Maqoma. 

The stellar ensemble is completed by musical director and orchestrator Tshegofatso Moeng, visual producer and set designer Cathrin Myburgh and stars internationally acclaimed opera powerhouse Ann Masina. With captivating performances from rising opera stars Simbone Qonye and Nokuthula Magubane, who play Nkoli and Ditsie respectively, GLOW is destined to grip the imaginations of audiences.

Rapper Gyre in Glow.
Image: Mark Lewis Rapper Gyre in Glow.

A documentary detailing the makings of GLOW has been in production. This will offer audiences insight into the intricacies of such a grandiose spectacle. What most excites Miller is the insight it will offer on how “contemporary young queer artists and activists learn about the life of Simon Nkoli”.

Nkoli was more than a queer activist. He was a beautifully flawed hero of the anti-apartheid and LGBTQIA+ movement who initiated, participated and propagated for the rights many enjoy today. His story is as queer as his sexuality and the vogue opera honours that.

Set for a premiere with Cape Town Opera in 2023, there's no doubt this is a story of “a queer boy who lived a life worthy of eternal homage”. GLOW is a roller-coaster of emotions sure to evoke provocative conversation not only in cishet spaces, but within the queer community too.

For more information, check out @glowvogueopera or mail

• Nene, known as the rapper Gyre, was a co-writer and member of the cast of GLOW.