Phiri: The Lost Musical

The story of a great musical lost in the sweep of history.

At the height of the apartheid era in South Africa, a small theater company in downtown Johannesburg began an audacious and dangerous project. The name of the company was the Phoenix Players, and the project was the original musical Phiri. Phiri, based on Ben Johnson’s 16th century play ‘Volpone.’

I think this element, a classic play, convinced the government to give the Phoenix Players permission to stage the work. I was a young teenager still in school, but I started working at Phoenix Players helping out, getting coffee, that kind of work, and I witnessed first hand the creation of the show.

Phiri had a short life. We performed the play in several and then premiered in Johannesburg. Our run lasted exactly one performance. Once the government got wind of what we were up to, they shut us down, and Phiri disappeared from the world. But not the memory of this music. That memory lingered for decades.

I’ve been thinking back on those days, and I wondered about the play and the music and what happened to the people involved. South Africa was the kind of place people disappeared. Those were brutal times. I began to reach back and unwind my memory to see what I might uncover.

I was excited to find the musical had not completely disappeared from sight.

I found a post on the internet about the show.

Phiri is Barney Simon’s African “Volpone” — a 1972 musical about the richest people and the poorest people in Soweto. Add Wally Serote to the co-writing team, and then mix four months of intensive musical composition input from Mackay Davashe and Cyril Magubane (Heshoo Beshoo Group — who will appear on EJ) … and then bring in a stellar band with three of the Heshoo Beshoo Group, Mackay Davashe and Barney Rachabane… and you have a cracker of a production.

Phoenix Players was up a flight of stairs in a dicey part of Jo’burg. The first time I walked into the room, the energy carried me to a new world. There was a heaviness to the world in Johannesburg. But these people were pushing back, creating great waves of music and songs and telling a wickedly subversive story.

Phiri is the richest and most mischievous villain and swindler in Soweto. He pretends to be on his deathbed, desperate for a wife and heir to his riches — attracting a long line of people bringing bribes to Phiri’s side-kick Mutla to win the favour of becoming the heir. Wealthy shebeen-queen Mamabele (Sophie Mgcina) is pregnant and decides she is tired of ‘having bastards’, and a half-dead man suits her fine. Phiri’s plan is to have his will read at his coffin — leave everything to Mutla — and then to leap out of the coffin and chase all the expectant bribers away with a sjambok (whip). The plan misfires when Mamabele brings a police sergeant to the reading of the will. Phiri stays in the coffin in fear of the trouble he will get into — and later has to run off to one of the homelands, while Mutla shares Phiri’s wealth with the people on the street.

Phiri was the inspiration of Barney Simon, who worked with Davashe and Magubane, beginning in Swaziland and then back to Dorkay House in Johannesburg to build this compelling musical. Simon was not one to back away from the racial tensions in South Africa. He wanted to create multiracial productions that sang straight into the face of the oppressive Afrikaner regime.

Working under the racial segregation laws of apartheid without state subsidies and under constant threat of arrest for staging controversial contemporary plays performed by multiracial casts in front of multiracial audiences, Simon was known for his method of creating and developing original plays through a workshop process of field research, improvisation and collaborative writing, sometimes with untrained actors or combinations of musicians, professional actors and people entirely new to the theater.

I last met Simon on the streets of New York City. It was years after Phiri. Barney yelled across the street to me. The chances of that happening in New York, thousands of miles from Johannesburg, seemed remote, but there he was, one of South Africa’s genuinely subversive artists flagging me down.

We found a bar and talked over the Phiri days. I was in awe of Barney Simon. How this white Jew found the courage to bring together a racially diverse cast and put on plays in South Africa was incredible to me. His work was raw and real, street, dangerous, bloody, challenging, sexy, and pretty much everything the Dutch Church and Pretoria bureaucrats hated. He never backed down.

Barney must have known we didn’t stand a chance with Phiri once we opened in Jo’burg. That wouldn’t have stopped him. The next day the papers carried a review of the musical. I don’t remember precisely what was said, but Phiri was never really a classic play from the 16th century London adapted as a sort of tribute to European culture by African artists. It was a look at the greed, money and street people of Soweto. I was the truth. The truth was verboten.

I found the gem of all gems in my search for Phirir — the cast album. This must have been one of my first recording sessions. I remember the room and the players. We did the whole recording in a day. I love the sound of the record. No frills. The musicians are incredible, and the vocals echo from the township streets. I haven’t heard these songs in fifty years. I remember every single one.

Listen to this amazing music from long ago here.

chris mchale is a writer/composer living & working in New York City.

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Christopher McHale

Christopher McHale

Writer | Composer | Producer | Human | Christopher writes about creativity, culture, technology, music, writing.