Though slightly more muted in its delivery, the audience response at the end of Thembi Mtshali's one-woman show, A Woman in Waiting - running concurrently with The Vagina Monologues - is similarly enthusiastic. And not without reason.
Certainly, there is much to admire in Mtshali. A 51-year-old Zulu woman, she was born into the racial prejudices inherent in the former, white-ruled South Africa. She watched as her mother struggled to raise seven children on her own in the fearsome townships of Durban. And then Mtshali became a young mother herself and fought her personal battle against poverty and indignity, not to mention the day-to-day horrors of night raids, crimes and unsympathetic employers.
Remarkably, Mtshali found a means of escape from this vicious and seemingly endless cycle of desperation. The stage provided her with the leverage to raise herself far above her humble beginning and the status labels associated with it.
A Woman in Waiting then is Mtshali's story, told in her own words - with the help of director Yael Farber who helped her articulate it. At times, it is immensely moving stuff, thanks in no small part to the power of Mtshali's personality. Hers is a force that, you sense, could fill an auditorium the size of Wembley (in its glory days) no matter what the production. The fact that the material here is so very personal engenders an even greater depth of respectful awe.
For an hour and fifteen minutes, Mtshali bounds around the stage bringing fantastic energy and expression to a piece that could have so easily fallen into stasis. She recaptures her own childhood innocence touchingly, plays multiple parts with a keen sense of mimicry, and breaks frequently into spirited song and breathtaking monologues of clicks-in-the-back-of-the-throat Zulu.
Beyond the specifics of her own life, Mtshali aims to communicate some broader messages. Perhaps most strongly that, of all the things black women were robbed of during apartheid, the time with their own children (either because those children were murdered or exiled or because the women were forced to earn a living by taking care of white children) was one of the greatest losses of all.
It's an important message, of course, and yet, a message alone doesn't make good theatre. Nor does a single performance, even one of Mtshali's calibre. Sadly, I couldn't help feeling like a woman in waiting myself while viewing this staged autobiography - a woman waiting for a more gripping story.