"During rehearsals we had ceremonies to unite the actors and spirits, to give a blessing to the production," says Brett Bailey, the South African writer and director, about his latest production, iMumboJumbo. "But the ancestors won't tolerate just any brandy or gin in ritualistic offerings - only Smirnoff and Viceroy!"
Bailey uses traditions deeply rooted in African culture. "Some black intellectuals say: 'White boy, what are you doing messing with our culture? But for me, the role of an artist is to open doors and explore things others don't. I feel passionate about what I do - there is a cultural and spiritual wealth here that needs to be boosted."
This drama is a colourful pantomime within a ceremony, with musical prayers that invoke healing for the audience, performers and venue while the show goes on. Underscored by vibrant music from Transkei and township gospel, Bailey tells the true story of Chief Nicholas Tilana Goaleka, an African healer, and his journey to Britain in 1996 to recover the skull of his kingly ancestor and thereby restore peace to South Africa. (Sadly, once the chief had found the skull in Inverness and got it home, scientists decided it was that of a white woman.)
"The point is," says Bailey, "that spirits get angry if their grave is not looked after with ongoing rituals. Disasters happen - sickness within the family, and so on. In 1996 - after apartheid fell - South Africa went through turmoil, crime and uncertainty because the king's skull was not laid to rest." He says British museums have about 17,000 specimens of body parts, many from colonial times, and these parts have spiritual value in African culture. "It is disempowering, and hard to retain your dignity as a family if you can't bury relatives and instead they become a curiosity in a museum."
Bailey spent time with Goal-eka attending ceremonies in an enclave in the Transkei. "It is very rural - sacrificing cows to make connections with ances-tors, living by the interpretation of dreams - a very different world to the one that I know."
Bailey's theatre company, Third World Bunfight, is a hotchpotch of ideas, with Broadway musical styles and deep African ritual and pantomine thrown together. "Amazing things come out of it," says Bailey - who last brought a show to the UK in 2001 called Big Dada, about Idi Amin.
The cast of 21 performers includes four traditional healers - songomas - playing themselves. "We take from what we see in the rural villages and make our own costumes and props. They use plastic bags to make wallpaper, so we use a lot of that in the costumes, to reflect the poverty of rural townships." A lot of the music is traditional healing music which Bailey recorded in Transkei.
"There is a de-spiritualisation in Africa. We can't look to America for the answers. To establish a morality in South Africa, we have to look back to our traditions."
'iMumboJumbo, the Days of Miracle and Wonder', 10-19 July, Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7500)Reuse content