“They’ve locked us in here and they’re going to wait for the virus to finish us off.” Thus goes a caption on a WhatsApp GIF Dalen sends to fellow retail workers. The workers have just found themselves marooned in Mega Mart when a customer with a suspected contagion goes into seizures before their very eyes.

Wait a minute… we are leaping ahead of the story of The Shopping Dead. Let’s retrace our steps to the beginning.

Background of the Production

The closure of theatres that came with Covid-19 has inspired artists to embrace virtual performances more than ever. For The Shopping Dead, an online play produced by Faye Kabali-Kagwa and South Africa’s National Arts Festival last weekend, WhatsApp formed the rare stage.

This exclusive new medium meant that audiences, not only in South Africa but around the world as well, held theatre in their palms, on their laps, to witness a moving drama evolve through GIFs, texts, voice notes, memes, and images. Did I tell you that the tickets were free? All you had to do was to join one of the WhatsApp groups and catch the drama. By mid-week, the premiere show had already sold out to enthusiastic audiences. The excitement and positive comments after the actors (wherever they were) had ‘taken their bows’, shows that the Director, Lesego Chauke, and the writer, Ncumisa Ndimeni, did a commendable job.

Tankiso Mamabolo (Khwezi), Chris Djuma (J), Kathleen Stephens (Z) and Kiroshan Naidoo (Dalen), The Shopping Dead. Directed by Lesego Chauke for South Africa’s National Arts Festival 2020

Development of the Story

The pandemic is at its peak. While this besets human interaction for fear of catching the virus, essential workers like these four store-attendants must keep at their duty station to serve their clients, with all the risks associated with this.

One expects the fraught atmosphere and the ennui of serving a capitalistic system to wear the workers out, but this interesting lot goes about their duties with sheer optimism. Khwezi (played by Tankiso Mamabolo) is just a few hours new in her position as the Assistant Manager in Training with a dream of heading one of the retail branches of the store; J (Chris Djuma) is a serial flirt with clients and Z (Kathleen Stephens). J, in fact, looks forward to using his commission to marry and buy Z a house; Z herself prefers paying customers who raise her commission to  ‘professional shopping browsers’ who comb through the entire store, asking her ‘a thousand and fifteen questions,’ without buying anything.

Dalen (Kiroshan Naidoo) is the most eccentric of the four. He holds erudite, if rather snobbish, views on everything – to the chagrin of others. Z calls him ‘a failed thought leader who couldn’t handle the real world after the golden years at uni ended and he is now slumming with them and their average intelligence.’ Thus, the workers of Mega Mart find solace and fun in each other until an American shopper with a mutated version of Coronavirus that turns its victims into zombies walks into the store.

A scene from The Shopping Dead. Directed by Lesego Chauke. 2020

The Issues and Style

The Shopping Dead scores highly on its symbolic unity of place. The claustrophobic setting not only heightens the psychological torture the characters undergo but also sheds a spotlight on the absurdity of the human condition. The workers’ demands for a raise is slashed from 12% to 3.7%, dampening the hopes of those who still had some faint faith in economic systems. The invisible hand that controls their lives (for we never see it in the play); the infiltration of their ‘little, happy world’ and disruption of the normalcy brought by the virus-carrying shopper suggests the geopolitics of suffering and reads as a metaphor for developing countries grappling with the yoke of exploitation by superpowers.

A scene from The Shopping Dead. Directed by Lesego Chauke. 2020

The issues the play concerns itself with are that serious, but the epigrammatic dialogue extended with witty memes, GIFs, and photos dispense a light-hearted story. Call it a fast-paced one-hour dramedy, The Shopping Dead relies heavily on the aural appeal of the audience who are equally confined in a WhatsApp group to eavesdrop on the Sisyphean world of the characters.

It is, however, that dramatic choice that almost undid it. Had the drama used more engaging images and videos specially designed for the play, the audience would have left the WhatsApp groups with a more visceral experience. The appropriation of popular images and memes involving famous people such as Jacob Zuma and Donald Trump also made the play an overt political attack on personalities rather than the systems or the views embodied by these real-life characters.

Nevertheless, The Shopping Dead will go down the history books as one of the WhatsApp Theatre trailblazers, an adroit commentary on the international politics surrounding Covid-19 and a humor-laced drama of attempted love, hopelessness and resilience.

The Shopping Dead written by Ncumisa Ndimeni and directed by Lesego Chauke was produced by Faye Kabali-Kagwa with the National Arts Festival as part of the Virtual National Arts Festival curated program.

This article first appeared in theafricantheatremagazine.com on July 5th, 2020, and has been reposted with permission. For the original article click here

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.