Comedian Mpho “Popps” Modikoane: Spokesman of South Africa’s “Born frees”

Image via Mahala

Watching audiences during stand up comedy shows is thrilling. Makes me feel like Amélie turning around in the movie house. There is something so participatory about the whole performance; like a live feed of ratings on faces. I recently went to Mpho ‘Popps’ Modikoane’s first one-man show: Exhibit A: Bornographic Material. It was at The Lyric Theatre in Johannesburg, I was late and it was dark when I sat down, but I could see that it was packed like sardines in a crushed tin box.

Comedians are interesting for being both societal spectators – observing cultural norms and values – as well as performers of that same society’s provocations. Sure, the comedian bears witness to their time, using “social commentary, high-energy impersonations and hilariously personal accounts” to put on a rousing show that gets the people going, but increasingly I think that there’s a barely perceptible, finely nuanced difference between what comics as writers set out to do and what they end up doing.

They use their lives as a prism for current events, and what I like about it is that the result is a live performance of what novelist Akin Adesokan describes as “dimensions of experiences that are perennial, that aren’t easy to grasp historically or as past events.” Serendipitously, when performing these experiences on stage, skilled comedians seem to me to refract their experiences onto the faces of audiences. I feel a mild case of synesthesia amongst a crowd of happy comedy fans identifying with a joke, like I can hear lights in their laughter. Laughter in the dark has a special kind of luminescence.

It brought to mind an excellently dark article I had recently read in the Chimurenga Chronic called “Situation is Critical,” investigating the context in which African creative writing takes place by asking, “Where is the hope? Where are the dreams? Where is the demotic counterpoint?” as a response to why there just has to be so much war and violence in the stories African men write.

I enjoyed a secret giggle while watching the story on stage in front of me, because as part of a slideshow hovering behind Popps, there was this photograph of a white child with no mention of why it was there and it felt like a “my-best-friend-is-white” LOL leitmotif that went without saying the whole time. Similarly, neither the African experience (slavery, wars, colonialism, diseases) nor the South African experience (all of the above plus apartheid and Jacob Zuma) held much credence in the show, and I could almost taste the relief in the crowd on my tongue. It’s a difficult thing trying to write about a comedy set without trying to be funny (perhaps the best proof of infectiously good satire?), but I will abstain and sum up that his set coalesced around family, friends, failures, fortunes and the future. Popps has come to be known as “The Spokesman for the Born Frees” (previous titles include The Minister of Single Fathers and Roads), and when the lights flung his constituency into relief, the people looked palliated.

The symptoms of post-apartheid pathologies felt less severe, the seriousness of the State of the Nation disguised, and fears or suspicions apparently allayed by this funny guy with giant eyeballs. In better lighting after the show, I saw that the crowd was mostly young, urban and black with a demographically apt sprinkling of white and brown faces. I fully understood why he is the face of MiWay Insurance, punting himself as a born-free running loose and still winning makes a wide variety of people feel protected, their hopes and dreams indemnified by “demotic counterpoints” to the status quo. It made me think that stand-up comedy lets people know in layman’s terms that things will be okay, crazy dreams do come true. Turn the spotlight onto yourself and guffaw a bit at how far you have come and how far you still can go.

Perhaps, then writing comedy – trying to imagine how the crowd will respond to biographic material that has to be lived before it can be performed on stage – is as much writing a metanarrative for historical meaning, experience and knowledge as it is offering a society legitimation in the process.

According to Popps, “You have not lived the South African dream if you have not been a call centre agent.” This was said before he started living real dreams like Blacks Only and Bafunny Bafunny, not to mention his latest role in Vuzu TV drama Ayeye. A lesser known fact: he acted in Thina Sobalili: The Two of Us, directed by Ernest Nkosi (they co-founded a production company, The Monarchy Group). Made on a shoestring budget with no outside funding – either from a private investor or the State – the film is set in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra and is gut-wrenching in its account of sugar daddies and marital rape. It won the Audience Choice Award at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles this year. I would have loved to compare faces in that crowd to those at the Lyric.

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I must admit that I groaned internally before the show when I saw him being touted as spokesperson for the “born frees” because the term has come to be so enervating, but to his credit, he started the show with the best disclaimer: “I am of the generation juuuust before the born frees,” while giving thanks to the generation juuuust before that one for making his whole fact of being on stage talking about a childhood in Soweto with a down ass white best friend possible.

Most born frees don’t have friends of different races, university education, access to creative success or opportunities to talk to hundreds of people about it. Even less so for the generation juuuust before. And obviously the one before that. So I felt proud of Popps for stating his case from the get go; that his show is about exploring the dimensions of his experience with different generations, races and classes. To normalize it. To make it real. To show thanks for the support and most importantly, to motivate the need for people to be the sole spokesperson of their own stories.

The situation is critical, there is a barely perceptible, finely nuanced semiotic war at work about who gets to decide what the future of the born frees will be. But the state of comedy (and its nation of gigglers) as refracted on the face of one of its most promising storytellers made me look forward to seeing faces at government gigs reflecting similar sentiments of laughing at luminaries as they struggle on, forging “bornographic material” as life-porn for future hopes and dreams.

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