By David Mann
Rob van Vuuren emerges from the wings wearing nothing but a loincloth fashioned out of what looks like a scarf he picked up at AfrikaBurn.
He’s strung out, wiry. There’s a wild look in his eyes. He is heading straight towards me. Before I know it, my face is in his hands. He’s placing his bare mouth over my glasses – first the left lens, then the right – blowing hot air onto both.
He releases me and walks away, leaving me dazed and confused, lenses fogged-up. It’s my fault, really. This is what you get for sitting in the front.
You may already know about van Vuuren’s crazed new persona, Namaste Bae. Over the past while, the comedian has taken over TikTok and Instagram with his new-age, satirical, self-help agenda. Never without a bottle of kombucha in hand (or a shirt on), he spouts new-age aphorisms about healing and enlightenment. He even has his own catchphrases – “Blessings and kombucha”, “stay damaged so I can heal you” – and a string of merch.
At the 2023 National Arts Festival, van Vuuren puts the social media gimmick on stage as Namaste Bae: Blessings and Kombucha.
It’s clear what he’s poking fun at. Namaste Bae zeroes in on the (predominantly white and wealthy) wellness trends clogging up our feeds with promise and proselytization: greater mental and physical health, spiritual enlightenment, cleansed auras (cleansed colons), transcendental ayahuasca retreats, low-GI, free-range, plant-based… you get it.
But he’s poking fun at us, too. Literally. Me and my glasses got off lightly. Over the course of the show, van Vuuren picks his targets, making them subjects on stage to help demonstrate the various steps one must take in order to reach enlightenment. It is equal parts hilarious and fear-inducing – we are all terrified of being called upon next. Who will be next to emulate the sound of a climaxing whale, or sing a lullaby to bring van Vuuren down from his bad trip?
Speaking of fear, Namaste Bae is absolutely riddled with it. And this is more or less the point van Vuuren is trying to make, it seems.
At the end of all the juice cleanses, guided meditations, and the sunrise yoga, lies an enduring legacy of violence, guilt and shame – located in contemporary South African whiteness. The closer he gets to transcendence, the more entangled he becomes in this history, its complicity. His psyche cracks, and out spill the colonial ghosts.
The result is manic guilt, fear, and self-loathing turned all the way up to 10. At times it is too much, and in the abject mania, the performance loses sight of its underlying themes. That superb gut punch that van Vuuren is so well-known for – that low, slow and cerebral ache that resonates long after you’ve left the theatre – feels more like a full-blown slap through the face.
In any case, van Vuuren’s not inviting you into the theatre just to beat you up. You will laugh, I promise. You’ll think, too. Just try and sit somewhere near the back if you don’t want a face full of kombucha breath.