Play about Whoonga drug crisis wins big at 2016 Durban Theatre Awards


Ulwembu, a play which examines the Whoonga drug problem in KwaZulu-Natal, won five prizes at the Mercury Durban Theatre Awards. Photo: File

ULWEMBU, a play which tackles the serious consequences of the Whoonga (low grade heroin) drug problem in Durban, was one of the big winners at this year’s Mercury Durban Theatre Awards.

Over the course of 2015, award-winning playwright and director Neil Coppen (Tin Bucket Drum, Tree Boy, Abnormal Loads and Animal Farm), actress Mpume Mtombeni, KwaMashu-based community-theatre group, The Big Brotherhood, and educational sociologist, Dylan McGarry, set about exploring the crisis.

The result of the two-year research/play-making process was a powerful new theatre production, which gave audiences the opportunity to walk in the shoes of users, dealers, police officers, social-workers and parents of drug users.

Says, Mtombeni, winner of the award for best actress in a comedy or drama: “With Whoonga having a catastrophic effect on communities around South Africa, the problem needs to be understood and addressed out in the open.”

To create the script, the group set out to record oral histories and testimonials from a broad cross- section of Durbanites before transforming these accounts into an unforgettable documentary-theatre experience which is designed to change the way we see and understand each other as citizens.

“If we want to respond to drugs humanely and comprehensively in Durban,” said McGarry, “we need to first understand the interwoven and deeply connected nature of this problem. Our production strives to give this contentious issue, a more human face and perspective.”

But Ulwembu is far from being a precautionary “say no to drugs” play. “With this production,” said Coppen, winner of the best director for a comedy or drama award, “we wanted to create an engrossing and visceral theatrical journey for audiences, allowing the power of the story and the characters escalating dilemmas, to reveal the many complexities and facets behind the crises.”


‘Ulwembu’ was a biug winner at the 2016 Durban Theatre Awards. Photo: File

The cast included Mthombeni, Vumani Khumalo, best supporting actor winner, Phumlani Ngubane, best new performer – male performer, Ngcebo Cele, Sandile Nxumalo and Zenzo Msomi.

The play, which was designed by McGarry with lighting by Tina Le Roux, was also the winner of the best new South African script award for Coppen, McGarry, Mtombeni, Cele, Vumani Khumalo, Zenzo Msomi, Ngubane and Sandile Nxumalo.

In a post on Facebook, Coppen said: “A big shout out to the Big Brotherhood actors, Mpume Mthombeni and Dylan McGarry for their incredible work on this production which has been three years in the making. Thanks to all our partners and sponsors for making this ambitious process possible and accessible to thousands,

Ulwembu will be touring to JHB in mid-January 2017 and we are looking for a theatre hosting partner to facilitate the show and discussions. Any takers?”


From left: Bryan Hiles, Jessica Sole and Katy Moore in KickStArt Theatre Company’s ‘Into The Woods’. Photo: Val Adamson

The evening’s other big winner was KickStArt Theatre Productions, whose cast and crew took home 12 awards for their incredible production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into The Woods.

Artistic director, Steven Stead said: “This was a memorable and magical show of which we are truly proud.”

Into The Woods – which intertwines the plots of several Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales, exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests – was named best musical theatre production and its director, Stead, was presented with the best director prize.

Actors, Bryan Hiles (lead actor in a musical), Jessica Sole (lead actress in a musical), Graeme Wicks (supporting actor in a musical) and Katy Moore (supporting actress in a musical) were also honoured for their work as The Baker, The Baker’s Wife, Jack (of the Beanstalk fame) and Little Red Riding Hood.

Other awards went to Leigh Meyer for choreography, Drew Reinstra for musical direction, Greg King for set design, Neil Stuart Harris for costume design, Tina le Roux for lighting design, Ross van Wyk for sound design and Shirley Berko for poster design.

Stead was also thrilled by the success of KickStArt Theatre Company’s other productions – the pantomime, Puss in Boots, and fan favourite, Winnie the Pooh, which won a number of awards, including best children’s theatre production for Puss.

Said Stead: “Congratulations to all the winners and nominees, and a massive thank you to our hard-working actors and technical teams.”


From left: Lyle Buxton, Rory Booth and Bryan Hiles have some panto fun in ‘Puss in Boots’. Photo: Val Adamson

Best lead actor in children’s theatre, Rory Booth, who won for his work in Puss in Boots, dedicated his award to his ‘beautiful Granny’, adding: “She lifted me up with every fibre of her being. She got me through so much with her constant support and belief in what I have to offer as a performing artist. I cherish and miss her dearly.

“[And] thank you Kickstart. Your work ethic, professionalism, passion and love for the arts is appreciated and most deserving of all the awards you win.”

The 14th annual Mercury Durban Theatre Awards were held at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre on the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College campus in Durban.

The ceremony honoured 20 productions staged in Durban during the theatre year October 1, 2015, to September 30, 2016.

The full list of winners is below:

  • Poster design: Shirley Berko – Into the Woods
  • Sound design: Ross van Wyk – Into the Woods
  • Lighting design: Tina le Roux – Into the Woods
  • Costume design: Neil Stuart Harris – Into the Woods
  • Set design: Greg King – Into the Woods
  • New performer – female: No nominations
  • New performer – male: Ngcebo Cele – Ulwembu

KickStArt Theatre Company’s Winnie The Pooh was won of the winning shows at the Mercury Durban Theatre Awards. Photo: Val Adamson


  • Supporting actress: Caitlin Kilburn – Puss in Boots
  • Supporting actor: Peter Court – Puss in Boots and Bryan Hiles – Winnie The Pooh
  • Lead actress: Belinda Henwood – Winnie The Pooh
  • Lead actor: Rory Booth – Puss in Boots
  • Director: Steven Stead – Puss in Boots
  • Production: Puss in Boots – KickstArt


  • Choreography: Leigh Meyer – Into The Woods
  • Supporting actress: musical theatre: Katy Moore – Into the Woods
  • Supporting actor: musical theatre: Graeme Wicks – Into the Woods
  • Lead actress: musical theatre: Jessica Sole – Into the Woods
  • Lead actor: musical theatre: Bryan Hiles – Into the Woods
  • Musical director: Drew Reinstra – Into the Woods
  • Director: Steven Stead – Into the Woods
  • Musical Theatre Production: Into the Woods – KickstArt

Aaron McIlroy was named best lead actor in a comedy or drama for his show ‘Comedy Masterclass’.


  • Script: Collaboration between Neil Coppen, Dylan McGarry, Mpume Mtombeni, Ngcebo Cele, Vumani Khumalo, Zenzo Msomi, Phumlani Ngubane and Sandile Nxumalo for Ulwembu
  • Supporting actress: No nominations
  • Supporting actor: Phumlani Ngubane – Ulwembu
  • Comedic performance by a female: No nominations
  • Comedic performance by a male: Aaron McIlroy – Comedy Masterclass
  • Strictly solo: Aaron McIlroy – Comedy Masterclass
  • Lead actress: Mpume Mthombeni – Ulwembu
  • Lead actor: Aaron McIlroy – Comedy Masterclass
  • Director: Neil Coppen – Ulwembu
  • Production: Comedy Masterclass – MacBob Productions
  • Judges award: Val Adamson



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