WILLIAM KENTRIDGE | The Head and The Load at the Johannesburg Theatre.

Written by Danijela Cook.

‘The head and the load are the troubles of the neck’, so goes the Ghanaian proverb that entitles the latest of William Kentridge’s theatrical works to arrive in Johannesburg. The Head and the Load explores the unacknowledged and largely undocumented role of Africans in the First World War. Originally workshopped in 2017 under Kentridge’s direction at the Centre of the Less Good idea , the production features musical compositions by Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi, choreography by Gregory Maqoma and performances by an exceptional company. 

The piece aims to honour the forgotten histories of African porters during the war. Rather than delivering a didactic performance, The Head and the Load offers audiences a fantastical report of this history. Influenced by the Dadaist movement that emerged in the middle of the war, audiences are confronted with what often feels like a game of broken telephone; the absurd dialogue accompanied by powerful compositions by Miller & Thuthuka create an environment of true nonsense. Within this environment begins the consideration of how history is recorded and the questionable logic of omission. 

The work is nothing short of spectacular. Energy is paraded across every inch of the 50 meter long stage. The stage itself was specially constructed for the piece, positioning the performance backstage and essentially turning the theater around. This type of gambit is present through all aspects; there is no allowance for surety provided by the dialogue, staging, music or pacing. 

The performance operates dynamically through visual projections, shadowplay, movement, unique staging elements and transcendental scores. Cardboard props and projections cast monumental silhouettes of Kentridge’s quintessential marks as a backdrop. In one instance, these props are rhythmically lugged by the performers across the stage in a procession that holds the heaviness of a death march while the shadowplay reports on the archive of anonymity. This procession scene concludes the first act entitled Manifesto’s. These punchy moments are juxtaposed with, or perhaps interrupted by, the absurd pageantry that is derivative of Dadaism. 

The use of fragmented and nonsensical dialogue is integral to the theme of the work as it questions how we’ve learnt to understand and communicate our histories. What comes to mind is the sequences of babbled mimicry between the three military figures, one of them being the frenchman caricature. The audience laughs along as the characters go back and forth, mocking each other’s made up words and adding on as they go along, displaying their sheer conceit – presumably a parody of the Berlin conference.

 Kentridge states that: It is about historical incomprehension (and inaudibility and invisibility). The colonial logic towards the black participants could be summed up: ‘Lest their actions merit recognition, their deeds must not be recorded. It is about historical incomprehension (and inaudibility and invisibility). The Head & the Load aims to recognise and record.   

What a pleasure to have such a moving piece of theatre brought back to the continent; here to share our history with each other and release the burdens of the past.

The Head and the Load ran from the 21st of April-6th of May 2023. Browse our collection of expositions of the wonderful work of William Kentridge here: