South Africa is in its twenty-third year as a democracy and while there is much to celebrate, the dystopian cracks between the many colors of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation are showing. Against this complex sociopolitical landscape, this issue asks what artists, thinkers, and theatremakers imagine their nation–their “imagined community”–to be. Texts from South African artists and theorists, edited by Megan Lewis.
The central fiat of Daniel Sack’s Imagined Theatres: Writing for a Theoretical Stage is to offer up “thought experiments” about the potential and (im)possibility of theatre. Driven by a concern “with what the language of theatre might afford our thinking,” Sack gathers a collection of “hypothetical events and worlds that might test the limits of the stage.” Imagined theatres, he writes, “show us what should be possible today, what thinkers like Jill Dolan and José Muñoz have framed as the utopic aspect of performance.”
So what might such hypothetical worlds look like in the South African context?
South Africa is in its twenty-third year as a democracy and there is much to celebrate: a significant black middle class; leadership positions for women; same-sex marriage protection; and robust, thriving creative industries that generate world-class, collaborative, physically-energized, provocative art, theatre, music, and dance. A utopian vision, perhaps, but these are material, symbolic, and psychic accomplishments worth honoring.
Yet it is also safe it say that the dystopian cracks between the many colors of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation are showing. The gap between rich and poor is ever-widening; the economy is in crisis; the educational system is in need of radical decolonization; and, despite the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, many South Africans are still victims of rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and violence. Political cronyism and corruption are rife and huge swathes of the population have not yet seen the changes promised to them two decades after the transition out of apartheid and into democracy.
Passionate debates are raging over who controls, funds, and produces theatre and art in South Africa; whether spaces are open, have opened, or will open to all who wish to present their work for the country’s publics; and who is sanctioned to tell stories and in what idioms. There are tensions and divisions between mainstream, established sites for theatre and community spaces whose practices and audiences are starkly different. Two decades into democracy, the ubiquity of whiteness lingers and black and brown artists are ceaselessly demanding systemic change.
Against this complex sociopolitical landscape, Imagined Theatres: South Africa asks what artists, thinkers, and theatremakers imagine their nation, their “imagined community,” to be. The diverse community of South Africanists I have gathered here offer up all manner of responses to the challenge of imagining theatres for a South African future.
They wrestle with legacies of fathers and sons; the past, present, and future; and galactic and uterine time. They place black women at the center of the discourse, not at its margins. And they imagine futures populated with afronauts, Namaqua chameleons, and inter-racial, brownish offspring. They conjure up a kraal of dreams; a theatre that speaks all of South Africa’s eleven official languages; and is lit with multicolored flames of crimson, ochre, indigo, African violet, bitter lemon, and aloe-green. Some offer cautionary tales of flying too close to the sun, reflecting on the racialized power dynamics of the past. Others try, failingly, to measure up to the freedom fighters we seek to emulate. Another calls for the opening up of spaces of palliative, cathartic inclusion. There are invocations and evocations of festival vibes, unbreakable circles, cross-community theatres, and extreme theatres of radical otherness.
The voices and visions in this collection represent some of South Africa’s most celebrated artists, seasoned veterans and newcomers alike. They are women, queerfolk, men, white, black, and brown South Africans. They are based in-country from Gugulethu to Grahamstown, Johannesburg to Kings Williams Town, and abroad, from the UK to the US. They study theatre and performance, and perform and make theatre. They use multiple modalities of expression: spoken word, physical theatre, applied dramaturgy, choreography, playwriting and filmmaking. Their contributions reveal the rich tapestry of South African creative culture.
While each imagining reveals individual aspirations, perspectives and dreams, they share a desire to shift South African culture towards greater inclusion and affirmation of all of the country’s citizens, not only those in historic positions of privilege. There is an urgent call for economic changes required for the transformation of South African culture specifically, demands for spaces in which to create artistic work and the material support to make that work possible. And there is a collective sense that the politics of South Africa are central drivers of its poetics.
I am honored to curate this first digital iteration of Imagined Theatres. Following the format of Sack’s book, I have retained the structure of pairing an imagined theatre with a gloss. Some of the glosses were commissioned in response to a specific imagined theatre, while others were paired after having been written independently. I grappled with how to pair the pieces so that tensions and resonances emerged to stimulate insights and reflections. There were—and still are—a multiplicity of pairings that these provocative imaginings might render possible. At a certain point, I had to simply choose one and stick with it, knowing that the audience would be able to draw out many more connections and intersections between the pieces than a simple coupling of “imagined theatre” and its “gloss” made visible.
I imagine this collection as a web, a spinnerak (Afrikaans), ulwembu (Zulu), or sekholo (Sesotho).
I offer it to you for your contemplation and unpicking. May its threads yield insights into what, and how, and why, and for/by/with whom we might imagine South Africa…
Dr. Megan Lewis
University of Massachusetts Amherst
SPACE: A landfill of functioning and durable electronic goods
TIME: Manje-manje – Just now, now now, just past or just approaching. Circular
CLIMATE: Dystopian, graphic novel
MOOD: Charged, fatalistic with small gaps for planting seeds
SOUND: Dated Central African punk rock
ACTION: Out of this pile of obsolete but recyclable material rises a shape, a figure, slowly, painfully dramatically…triumphantly a superhero, a timetraveler made of lead, mercury, glass, cabling, batteries and electric chords, transistor chips
CHARACTERS: Afrosteampunk superhero
ASTRONAUTUS AFRIKANUS VOLUME II
SPACE: Zambian Academy of Science Space Research Religion and Philosophy in Lusaka and an all girls Catholic boarding school in a small town in South West England and The Pan African Space Station in Cape Town
TIME: 60’s 80’s 00’s
SOUND: Zambian 60’s punk rock
IMAGES: Inside of a space ship, inside of a girls dorm, inside a turntable
CHARACTERS: Mwaba Mwamba – afronaut
SPACE: Hospital maternity ward
TIME: Nowish or at least manje-manje
SOUND: A melodic composition of beeps, whirrs, breathing, heartbeats, sighs, births, deaths
FIGURES: Babies everywhere
SPACE: Transit Lounge
SOUND: Counting in as many African languages as possible
ACTION: Setting up tents
CHARACTERS: 3 Generations of African women. All time travelers
INTERACTION: Life or Death
ACTION: 10 Africans busy building personal teleportation devices from new things and old things. They often stop to listen. The children have TV’s for heads
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
TIME: Dream Time
FIGURES: She becomes a desert plant with ancient healing properties. She becomes an alone. He becomes a fractal. She becomes a night sky. He becomes yesterday. She becomes a portal. He becomes an animal skin. She becomes a hot spring. He becomes a desert lizard. She becomes a King. He becomes a bird. She becomes a masquerade. They become a play
POWER: Plenty of it. Equally
ECHOES: My Africa is Always in the Becoming – Faustin Linyekula
TIME: Returned from Time
MOOD: On the brink
FIGURES: Sangomas appear from everywhere. Young and old. They fill the area. They keep arriving. They bring their people
SPACE: Sand Dunes. Skeleton Coast shipwrecks on dry ocean beds
CLIMATE: Desert hot
FIGURES: Desert Beetles
QUESTIONS: What kinds of characters emerge from the oldest desert in the world
SOUND: Zambian National Anthem
FIGURES: 3 versions of Kenneth Kaunda: His younger self who plays with a wire space ship; On his first day in office as the first Zambian head of state; On his last day in office as President of the country after 27 years
IMAGES: Eagles, kingfishers, water, copper
CHANGES: All his selves enter a wire space ship. There is countdown. It blasts off
EAST WEST DUST PLUMES
CHARACTERS: 2 characters attempt to traverse the Namib desert through east west dust plumes. They try. Lose everything. Sit. Try again. In Act 2 they try to keep the desert off the Yellow Brick Road
SPACE: Under a Shepherd’s Tree
ACTION: The characters perform a series of solos until they become extinct
CHARACTERS: Namaqua chameleon, Namib long eared bat, Aardwolf
SPACE: Dune Slopes. Dune Streets. Inter-dune Valleys. Slipface dunes.
CLIMATE: Unstable. Intense easterly winds
FIGURES: Sidewinder Spiders
ACTION: Wind blown plant detritus accumulates in cushions on and within the slipface. It is re-exposed as the slip face moves
ACTION: Mass migration of Europeans and Americans to Africa. The towers reconstitute. The planes land at their airports
FIGURES: People, Objects, Ideas, Animals try different ways of returning from the past. Some succeed
SOUND: Organic matter growing
ACTION: Indigenous plants live, survive, replant themselves. They migrate all over Johannesburg and slowly take over the buildings and roads
SPACE: Your choice
INTERACTION: A physical text, a poet, an image, a live sound core, a person to watch. A play
CHARACTERS: The play is about the person watching
FIGURES: Women. Black Ones.
POWER: The institution and the work of mothering / motherhood. The characters perform their mothering and motherhood in a way that makes them and their children abundantly joyful and truly content with the totality of their life choices
SPACE: At odds with Time
TIME: At odds with Space
CLIMATE: At odds with Sound
SOUND: At odds with Climate
ACTION: A full stage. A repeated action. A stuck record. A new day that looks remarkably like the last one
RESTLESS GHOSTS AND TOO MANY QUESTIONS
SPACE: Ordinary. Recognizable
PATTERNS: A play about restless ghosts and too many questions
MYTH: Hero’s Journey
ART LIVES HERE
SPACE: Art Gallery. Empty Plinths, frames and glasses cases – different shapes and sizes to accommodate different future works
ACTION: The audience is given headsets as they enter. As they approach each empty plinth, frame, etc. they each hear a different and thoroughly engaging description of the future work before them
INSIDE THE OTHER SIDE
SPACE: In utero
TIME: Uterine time
ACTION: 3 people recall dying. 1 person listens
BUSINESS AS USUAL
SPACE: some mythical place where there are Jacaranda trees in summer
TIME: In an unbelievable time
INTERACTION: Groups of people rush to stage singing. They are shot and fall and die, and keep singing.
POWER: Different people take to the loud hailer to announce that the programme continues today as normal despite a series of disturbing incidents over night. The voice assures us all that there is nothing to worry about while the group cycles through singing and dying
ESTHER & EDWARD
TIME: My birthday
SOUND: John & Alice Coltrane
FIGURES: Esther Phiri & Edward Nkoloso as children. She washes tomatoes to sell at Kamwala Market. He collects scrap metal
ACTION: Repeat. Revise. Reference
THANK YOU VERY MUCH
SPACE: Joburg suburbs and Joburg informal settlements
TIME: A nighttime that lasts until the action is complete
ACTION: Small groups of people approach Joburg’s high suburban walls with tools of various kinds to break the walls down brick by brick. These bricks are collected and transported to where other houses are being built. All this with the careful assistance of every available suburban security company. When every wall is down and as many new houses as possible are built from their bricks, Time may, if it so wishes, proceed once more
TIME: Dream Time
CLIMATE: Raining jacaranda flowers and then wigs and then foam balls covered in ‘java print’. When the stage is knee deep in this someone comes to clear a perfect square, which is lit dramatically. In this square a chair appears and someone comes to braid, weave or cut someone’s hair
PRETORIA GIRLS HIGH
SPACE: A hair salon. A portal
TIME: A past time and a future time
SOUND: Central African pop
FIGURES: Hair stylist Diviner. Black women, many of them
ACTION: A long, long, long line of black women waiting to be attended to. One by one, the hair stylist/diviner braids, weaves, twists, cuts, parts, persuades hair into ancient African hair styles. Not all of which are now making a comeback. The person being braided is transported each time
ECHOES: Shani Crowe’s ‘Braids’ exhibition
SPACE: A recognizable African city. Familiar and futuristic
TIME: A future
INTERACTION: Everyone in this world is a superhero except 2 people. Only 2 non-superheroes allowed per non-superhero lifetime. They attempt to live, love, and work as foreigners in this place
A DEEP SILENCE
SPACE: Inside a deep silence
TIME: A deeply silent one
SOUND: Deep Silence
ACTION: Something emerges
I WANT PROTEAS FOR CHRISTMAS
TIME: Time un-writes and re-writes itself trying to send messages to the future.
ACTION: Various stages of raging fires and proteas growing and dying on a repetitive but disjoined loop that does not repeat in the same order each time
SOUND: Voice over of different people, in different languages re-imagining the rules for spatial and temporal travel
INTERACTION: Solos and duets created from the following physical vocabulary: bend, fold, twist, erode, interrupt, complete, flatten, stamp, engage, sweep, slide, rest, settle, hide, hope, take, smother, grind, birth, bridge, sharpen, trace
SPACE: Measureless spacetime. Above the earth’s atmosphere
TIME: Dream time
ACTION: Space ships – all the famous ones takeoff, land and crash as per historical record. We see their astronauts. On another part of the stage, Esther and Edward wake up early. She polishes tomatoes and he collects scrap metal
SPACE: African cities
FIGURES: Transformed statues
ACTION: The statues of African heads of state melt into life. They come down from their concrete stands and re-convene the ‘Berlin Conference’ somewhere else. They call it something else and make different decisions
ONCE UPON A NIGHT AT KIPPIES
SPACE: Kippies, Johannesburg
SOUND: Only just recognizable Brenda Fassie
ACTION: Brenda returns to tell us what it is like on the other side. Esther and Edward sit in the front row
SPACE: Immersive for the audience
INTERACTION: Between audience members and the messages they receive
CHANGES: Everything, depending on how audience members respond
ACTION: Water is scarce. Audience members are assigned to rescue groups. They receive a message via text, whatsapp, twitter, facebook or skype…from some someone who informs them of a family at the brink of death from lack of water. The audience group must make a plan to get water to this family. Each audience group is immersed in a different natural disaster scenario
LEGENDS OF KAMWALA MARKET
SPACE: A corner of Kamwala Market in Lusaka
TIME: Before Esther Phiri became a famous boxer
IMAGES: tomatoes, rituals, boxing gloves
ACTION: Mohammed Ali goes to the market to buy tomatoes. He sees a girl selling them. He is drawn to her. Something in her eyes. They shake hands. She has a good grip. He returns every week to buy tomatoes from her and foretells her future in which she is a great boxing champion. She believes him
FIGURES: Mantis, Tortoise, Spider, Hare, Elephant, Lion, Snake
ACTION: The figures re-write their fables so that their kind are the audience. People feature as enemies, ghosts, strange creatures to be avoided, tricksters, liars, and thieves. Metaphors are made of our stereotyped attributes and by these the animals learn right and wrong
THEY KNOW US FROM WHAT THEY FIND
SPACE: Desolate, ruble remains
TIME: A time when the world as we know it has finally imploded
CLIMATE: Too hot, or too cold, too wet or too dry, depending on what kind of world ending, climatic catastrophe the theatre makers imagine has destroyed us
PATTERNS: Endings and beginnings
ACTION: A team of archeologists from another world have discovered remnants of our civilizations. They know us from what they find
SPACE: A zoo
SOUND: West World sound track
ACTION: Blacks visit human zoos of white people. They are naked, shackled, pathetic, bedraggled, translucent circus freaks
ECHOES: Brett Bailey’s exhibits A & B
SPACE: Slave Ship holds
MOOD: Deadly and then jovial
SOUND: Static white noise and then dance party music
ACTION: In the slave ship hold, stacked to the brim are white people packed head to toe. They rise slowly, helping each other. Slowly the slave ship transforms into a cruise ship and the white people drink and party. This goes on for a while until the ship hits an iceberg and sinks. Quickly. There are 2 survivors who have very different stories to tell
OH SO ORDINARY OR WHAT A BORING PLAY
SPACE: A world of inter-racials and their brownish offspring going about their business. Just that
SPACE: A selection of African countries simultaneously
FIGURES: Fathers and their left-handed sons
ACTION: The sons teach their fathers how to write. The fathers raise their sons as feminists
ACTION: Audiences are each invited to come and sit in front of a mirror and on a circular floor cloth of shiny wax print. They are instructed to describe the ideal version of themselves as an African. This version appears before them. They converse
MYTH: Snow White
A PLAY ABOUT WHATEVER YOU LIKE
ACTION: An excellent piece of creative work in Zulu, Bemba, Twi, Yoruba or Swahili with Zulu, Bemba, Twi, Yoruba, or Swahili subtitles depending on who is in the audience
THE MARVELOUS PLAY
FIGURES: Utterly marvelous
CHANGES: Everything, marvelously.
CHARACTERS: Esther and Edward
MYTH: The spit of African babies is prized above all else for its capacity to reveal people’s destinies when applied to the area between the shoulder blades
KWAME NKRUMAH UNIVERSITY
SPACE: Kwame Nkrumah University in Kabwe, Zambia
MOOD: On the brink of something extraordinary
LANGUAGE: Bemba, Nyanja, Lozi, Tonga, Ndebele, English
ACTION: Edward Mukuka Nkoloso addresses the very first intake of students at Kwame Nkrumah University (then known as Kabwe Teachers College)
TIME: A time when countries as we know them now have been abolished
ACTION: People move when and where they desire for purposes of their choosing. They are restless, rootless, nomadic
A GET TOGETHER OF THE GODS
SPACE: The heavens, as it were
TIME: Heavenly, as it were
ACTION: Rain god, Sun god, Sky god, Earth god, Wind god wine and dine. They are intoxicated and eat a decadent meal of humans. They spare only those who can speak multiple languages fluently. These will re-populate the new world. Among those spared are Esther and Edward
SPACE: Somewhere familiar
FIGURES: 2 identical people. One of them is a robot
ACTION: A human and their identical robot / a robot and their identical human have a heated argument. One of them kills the other. It is unclear if the human has won or the robot
. . . I PRESUME
SPACE: A grand hall that turns into a music box
TIME: The Queen’s Birthday
MOOD: Sordid and celebratory
SOUND: Something that’s good for a duet and Happy Birthday
IMAGES: Mosi ao tunya (the smoke that thunders)
FIGURES: David Livingstone, The Queen of England, and armies of Africans
ACTION: David and Liz dance a duet. They are surrounded by armies of armed Southern Africans who kill the pair in more and more inventive ways at the end of each dance while singing Happy Birthday (one of those nasty, playground versions). Each time David and Liz die for a moment, rise and dance again until they become 2 bloody figures on a music box
SPACE: A ward in a laboratory on the continent
FIGURES: The space is filled with people in beds on wheels. Each is hooked up to a portable dream capture device. Dreams are examined and recorded as history
SPACE: A classroom
ACTION: Audience joins a class of learners studying what we know as observational astronomy, astrometry, planetary geology, physical cosmology, and other branches of space science in Swahili, Twi, Yoruba, isiXhosa, Bemba, Shona, or any other languages of the director’s choosing. Esther and Edward are among the audience
A DAY AT THE AFRICAN IMMORTALITY LAB
SPACE: The African Immortality Laboratory
FIGURES: The newly born, the newly dead, and the long dead
SPACE: Empty stage
FIGURES: Everyday Africans
INTERACTION: People arrive one by one or in small groups. They look up, smile, and silently agree to keep the secret of what they have seen, between them
AND SO WE LIVED
TIME: A time when life expectancy is determined by the depth of one’s capacity to dream
USELESS GOOD ENGLISH OR THE DECOLONIAL PLAY
TIME: Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s future
FIGURES: Brownish, Brown, browner, brownest people
LANGUAGE: Anything but English
IMAGES: A pile of burnt English dictionaries
ACTION: Decolonization in practice
OF ALL THE STUPID THINGS TO TRY TO DO
SPACE: Impossible fantasy
FIGURES: Refugees, nomads, exiles, travelers, visitors and any other migrants of all shapes and sizes
IMAGES: Whole cities built of suitcases
CHANGES: Levels of failure
ACTION: Different attempts to stop human mobility
SPACE: A migrant camp
TIME: Just Now
LANGUAGE: A new Creole
ACTION: A migrant camp has grown so large that it has taken over the host city. The migrants call a meeting with the few remaining hosts who have neither fled or died
PATTERNS: A collection of monologues about border crossings – Monologues about making it across.
UNCONDITIONAL HOSPITALITY OR WHEN WILL THE PLAY START
FIGURES: A single figure
ACTION: The audience waits for the play to start. It doesn’t.
APPEARANCE OF FIGURES:
Manje manje: A temporally fluid southern African phrase directly translating into English as ‘now now’ and commonly used to refer to a time that has either just past or is soon approaching.
Sangoma: Traditional Healer.
Kenneth Kaunda: Zambia’s first President.
Jacarada’s: A tree common to the Southern African region with a distinct and fragrant purple flower.
Esther Phiri: A current boxing champion and Zambia’s most famous athlete.
Edward Nkoloso: Founder of a Zambian Space Program in the mid 1960’s called The Zambia Academy of Science Space Research and Philosophy.
‘Java’ Print: Also known as wax print, Dutch wax print, Java print, or Dutch Java. Mass produced cotton fabric with origins in Indonesia and produced by the Dutch for distribution in Europe where it was unpopular and dumped as surplus on African shores. It has come to be associated distinctly as ‘African’ fabric.
Pretoria Girls High: A High School in Pretoria, South Africa, where in late 2016 students protested against the school’s racist code of conduct that stipulated they must chemically straighten their hair.
Kwerekwere: A derogatory term used across South Africa to refer to African nationals from other parts of the continent.
Proteas: South Africa’s national flower (and name of the national cricket team).
Kippies: A legendary Jazz Club in Johannesburg named after saxophone player Kippie Moeketsi.
Brenda Fassie: Famous South African Afropop vocalist known also as ‘Ma Brrr’, ‘Madonna of the Townships,’ and ‘The Black Madonna.’
Kamwala Market: One of several large shopping markets in Lusaka.
West World: An American science fiction television series.
Brett Bailey: South African theatre maker and festival curator and Artistic Director of the theatre company Third World Bun Fight.
Faustin Linyekula: Congolese contemporary dance choreographer and dancer, and founder of Studios Kabako.
- All prompts are open to interpretation.
- Ignore or change prompts that do not speak to you in the moment, come back if they speak to you later.
- Leave your tech behind and go for a walk. Notice things that you would not normally notice.
- Be prompted. Let your subconscious do all the work of piloting, try not to judge what surfaces and enjoy the trip.
- Promise to fill the gaps and embellish with glorious detail all the prompts that spark your imagination. See the theatrical world unfold before you with the clarity of a clairvoyant and complete the show in your mind.
- There are no obligations.
- Your resources are limitless.
Skipping back and forth along the spectrum of the speculative fiction genres, including fantasy, sci-fi, utopia, dystopia, alternative history, post-apocalyptic, superhero and the rest, Prompts for African Futures are little invitations to engage with how Africa is imagined and might imagine itself in, and into, the future. Inspired in part by Elinor Fuch’s EF’s Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to ask a Play (2004), the prompts function as small worlds for which there is no border control. These fragments become exercises in speculative imaginings from, and about, Africa and are designed to contest the legacy of futurist narratives that have been dominated by depictions of the future in literature and film in which black Africans do not feature at all or do so in the most marginal of ways. They are also an invitation to escape the development programme narratives that often plague conversations about the future in Africa and to conceive of African futures outside of a linear progression of events from the past. The reader/theatremaker/audience is here invited to join the growing list of other artists who have viewed the world from the African continent and through a speculative lens including, Nnedi Okorafor, Jepchumba, Teagan Bristow, Frances Bodomo, Wanuri Kahiu, Wangechi Mutu, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Kapwani Kiwanga, and Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum.
As a place to encounter the unimaginable and the unknown, the speculation is deeply fundamental to theatre making and the re-occurring characters of Edward (Nkoloso) and Esther (Phiri) ensure that past, present, and future are made to co-exist in the theatrical world as they do in the non-linear particularity of African time cycles. Nkoloso was a school teacher who is (in)famously known for founding the Zambian National Academy of Science Space Research and Philosophy, driven by the belief that Zambia would beat the Russians and Americans to space. Phiri, on the other hand, is a boxing champion and currently Zambia’s most famous athlete. They criss-cross through the prompts as time-travelling figures from different eras who each evoke a special kind of independence.
You’re on a long slow road in the Karoo. It’s hot and dry and all of your previous girlfriends are hitchhiking out of Cradock. They’re standing there where they sell the mini metal and wire windmills near the turn off to the memorial for the Cradock Four which you really think you should one day make time for but you’ve by now driven way too far past the sign.
You don’t have enough room for all of your ex-girlfriends and so you stop at the furthest edge, closest to your most recent ex-girlfriend, in order to facilitate a quick getaway before the others catch up. Regrettably, this means you might lose your first ex-girlfriend, unless she manages to really put in a sprint…
As your four fastest ex-girlfriends pile into the car, the wire windmill sellers form a chorus to sing extracts from Boesman and Lena while doing a pantsula routine before marching up Tafelberg (the one in the Karoo, not the other one). You drive away, picking up speed between the weirdly shaped rocky outcrops. On top of each peak, barely visible, are small rubber replicas of ex-girlfriends dressed like Olive Schreiner doing voice exercises, while men wearing volksklere play jukskei in the square before nagmaal.
A low flying aeroplane appears pulling a streaming banner saying: “Apathy Now!” It’s accidentally shot out of the sky by a nuclear submarine still being paid off on credit. The reason for the mistake is that the captain of the sub was delayed because the buses ordered by the city council were made for the wrong side of the street, so when he tried to climb off he stepped out into traffic.
Taps are turned on and precious water is wasted in exuberant displays of outrage which floods computer labs and lecture venues. The flood douses cars still burning from a former fire. A joyful fury takes hold of the crowd.
Police join the dance, rhythmically bouncing rubber bullets off elbows and knees. The dancing becomes more and more frenetic, and now there’s singing – “put that bottle down, put it down.” The State is the wallflower at the party, taking a while to join in. Maybe it’s waiting for a better song, something more retro that won’t draw too much attention to itself…
Inmates set fire to their prison and find themselves trapped in smoke. Freedom, freedom, they lament, as their cells choke them in darkness.
Somewhere a roomful of people are sweating as they spin the wheels of mounted bicycles going nowhere to loud ambient rhythms.
Protest becomes institutionalized. Classes teach a history of protest and researchers explore its framing mechanisms. Students attend workshops, learning how to revolt better, how to dislocate systems. The workshops break down, however, when protestors disrupt the protest classes. Yes, the teacher encourages – excellent, now you’re getting it. The protestors attack the teacher and carve an A+ into his chest with a red bic ballpoint.
You chase the horizon.
The horizon does what it does best.
I hang between the rich provocations evoked by this piece: the Past where longing, loss, nostalgia, iconic kitsch, arbitrary destruction, and ubiquitous violence mark a sense that we have driven so far past the sign to our intended destination that there is no point turning back now; the Present where versions of protest have become self-referentially harmful; and the Future where protest is absurdly institutionalized, but freedom remains tantalizingly elusive.
This piece foregrounds the importance of the imagination, dreaming, and nightmares in relation to memory and time. However, it provokes two challenges in my mind: Firstly, how do we fold time, create what Fabian refers to as coeval “intersubjective time” (1983:24), which implicates the present in the past, the observer in the installation, and thereby make visible not only the legacies of the past, but also its processes? Jacqui Alexander refers to “palimsestic time” (2005:1); which layers time and thus asks us how to relativize what has gone before.
Secondly, this piece provokes me to ask: how do we move beyond the representational and communicate surreal imaginings when societies in general and theatre in particular are trapped within systems of signs, epistimologies of knowledge and memories? Barad terms this “a representationalist trap of geometrical optics“ (2003: 802), which she argues ends up being an “infinite play of images between two facing mirrors [where] the epistemological gets bounced back and forth, but nothing more is seen” (Ibid, 803). How do we provoke audiences to see something new?
On considering how to move this description of a performance to an authentic theatrical event, my immediate response is through radio. Then I could hear the text and make meaning in my own mind; give body, color, setting, meaning to the images that drift toward me. In my imagination, the significance of color, gender, age diminish as I place my own people and parallel stories alongside those I hear, or are suggested by voices. In my mind I can escape the representationalism of visual images of television, film, live theatre where the characters’ appearances replicate the world I already know. And here I reflect nostalgically on South African pre-1976, where families and friends gathered to listen to the ‘wireless’ on Friday nights, silently listening collectively to the stories and after excitedly discussing plots, characters and next episodes; or unpack the sports game we only saw in our minds through the commentators. Individually and collectively we constructed our own worlds through sound and our imaginations.
How to achieve this in theatre? How can we challenge and fragment signs and epistemologies and so create the world anew?
Alexander, M. Jacqui. (2005), Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory and the Sacred. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Barad, K. (2003) “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28:3, 801-831.
Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the Other: How anthropology makes its object, New York: Columbia University Press.
We gestate a human-centered value system expressed through creativity.
We have talents, issues, histories, skills, idiosyncrasies, gifts, neuroses, geniuses.
We have short hair, nappy hair, black, brown, and blonde hair, dreadlocks, long hair, curls, conks, braids, dyed hair, Mohawks, and ponytails.
We are black, pink, brown, red, white, yellow.
We are Gold.
We speak lots of languages, code switching is our mother tongue.
We are complex, diverse, and for us identity is a verb.
Every show starts with The Circle.
The Circle sends a message to the psyche that sacred space is being created, a place to tell our individual and collective stories.
The Circle is the sun and moon and the earth, the big round cycles of cosmic time.
We replicate whole, integrated human beings when we form a circle: our chests are open, our breath expands, our hearts are exposed.
The Circle is where we are at the same level. We stand eye to eye, shoulder to shoulder.
The Circle symbolizes Home, we are reassured that we belong.
The Circle is unbreakable and unbroken.
It is hard to dream in my country now; the dry air makes it hard to do so.
We are all swimming in the desert not realizing that we are blind. We cannot see the difference between water and sand. It is because we have accepted and made normal what is not meant to be.
Our wounds rushed the healing process; they did not heal, now the wetness of the wound is showing off. We pretend we can’t see it. We think of excuses that will get us through the day. It’s because we were told to take it slowly, one day at a time.
The theatre I imagine for South Africa understands the past and acknowledges how our history has wronged some South Africans.
For a very long time we have been made to believe that when you speak a certain language (English), when you do theatre in that language, it is accepted. It gives the work a certain professional status. In this country we have eleven official languages and yet it is rare to see Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, and all the other languages on stage.
The theatre I imagine for South Africa speaks many languages.
The theatre I imagine for South Africa claims and gives a mouth to a voice that has been hidden,
kicked to the side.
It has lost its dignity, and far worse — it does not believe itself a story worthy of being told.
The theatre I imagine for South Africa restores that dignity and gives it a home.
It speaks about the beauty of a nation, the richness of the land. About material beauty, beauty in spirit, and the depth of culture.
I long for texture—a true reflection of our existence.
Different voices to be heard.
I hope for a future that creates space for all
with enough means for us to do that.
All these different ingredients form the dish that is my imagined South Africa.
Rock it to the core.
Imagine rock stars making music.
But what if we become the instruments?
Rocks can be bricks.
Rocks are women. A woman is a rock.
Igusha which means … in IsiXhosa
Idlagusha which means … in English?
From Xhosa to English not the other way round.
No longer sheep following blindly.
No longer the black sheep in the family.
How messy can one get as igusha, sheep, in the land of the idlagusha, white sheep eaters?
Be igusha (vagina) in the world.
Not a lamb to the slaughter.
Ingcuka eyombethe ufele lwegusha
A wolf wearing a sheep skin.
We can offer you some meat: sheep meat.
Shock, shake, and shove the status quo of the arts in South Africa.
Even though we are made unable, we are not unable.
We can. A woman can.
Play with words. Play with knives and rocks.
Make noise on stage.
To be alive as a black woman in theatre.
We can no longer waste our energies trying to be heard.
We exist, we have been existing
and we can longer
afford to be someone’s developmental project.
We can no longer afford to be boxed.
No longer allow the gate keepers to use us as bodies of convenience.
We have been talking transformation, inequalities.
It is tiring.
Until we DO US
we will always be that convenient
black woman for the day.
a theatre and creative arts practices with full knowledge of their purpose and their supreme mandate to the society they locate themselves in and from
a theatrical practice whose job it is to bring the darkness closer so as to see the light better
a laboratory of thinkers
a kraal of dreams
a bank of visions
a well of herbs of stories
a plantation of inspiration and a market of wisdom
a place of cross-generational exchange of views and knowledge a time and space of dream interpretation of sleeping time and waking time
Imagine a theatre of dream interpretation, fully incorporating the language that is familiar to the listener and so deep in its complexities that its meaning and teaching reach far beyond the performer. It engages with young people using creative arts. It revitalizes my spirit as an artist with holistic purpose.
Its approach of interdisciplinary work opens my mind to the true African aesthetic of making performance. Its process of inclusive creation ensures that its skills are transferred to all who participate. This is exactly how the African skills of storytelling and other forms of performances are thought from one generation to the other.
Its approach and philology of training centers itself around the notion of Ubuntu in teaching and in performances. This philosophy is still central to my work and my leadership practices today.
So I imagine…
a theatre whose processes include the maximum participation of the participants in creation
it is interdisciplinary
it entrances in the making of the performance
it is site-specific and about public art aesthetics
it is processional and about a spirit of mass community engagement
it is ritualistic and engages with life/live elements
it is of the now and about the fresh voices of the participants
it is a total reclamation of the stolen memory in African performances
it is contemporary
it is a kind of approach that heals
that develops through telling the stories that matter
the lost to those who tell it
it is a total resuscitation of an African spirit in creative arts
I am guided by a spirit
of nothing about us without us
by our voices about our voices
for our healing
Imagine making the kind of theatre that takes place in small rural towns in South Africa, where theatre and performance are not afforded much value. At the heart of this work is an exploration of what it means to synergise ‘mainstream’ and ‘community’ theatre in rural South African contexts; it is a theatre that seeks to blur these historical, geographic, and theoretical divides.
The kind of theatre I would like to make views ‘community’ theatre not as lesser and inferior, but as vital in its own right. It does not conform to ‘mainstream’ theatre norms and traditions that are typically defined by the spaces and geographic locations in which theatre is performed; it does not necessarily rely on theatre buildings and geographic locations that are more easily accessed by those who have transport and are able to afford the price of a theatre ticket. ‘Community’ theatre is performed in townships in non-formal spaces such as church halls, market places, taxi ranks, and the like. The architecture of the space thus often allows for and encourages active physical audience engagement.
What if we maintain that the power relationships between actors and audience are fluid and interchangeable? What if we posit that ‘mainstream’ theatre primarily emphasizes the role of the individual actor, the playwright and the director, as opposed to ‘community’ theatre’s emphasis on creative collaborators? And we see these as values rather than detriments?
What if we endeavor to realise a model that embraces both under the umbrella of theatre and performance?
Imagine a cross-community professional theatre:
- Site-specific theatre that involves working with people from different communities within small rural towns.
- Professional artists work alongside ‘non-proffessional’ community artists (artists who do not necessarily make a living out of performance).
- Community members are involved in the process as well as in the performance. It is cross-community in that theatre and performance provide a framework for conversations between different communities. These conversations occur during the creation process as well as during the performance.
Concomitant to this, is an interest in investigating what happens when memories contained within physical spaces and structures encounter external memories within particular spaces. For example, when memories of neighbours and the surrounding homes, converge with memories contained in the performed story, when geographical and psycho-emotional landscapes converge or collide.
The kind of theatre I would like to see being made is not about master, single narratives, official memory, or the structured geographies of town, house, and work/economic space. Rather, it engages psycho-emotional landscapes, conversations, personal stories, embodied memories, communities, home and domestic spaces.
This theatre informs the structure of the town; it permeates the geographic memory of the place.
Multiple experiences, memories and stories are exchanged between, and within, different communities.
Through site specific theatre and performance, I imagine embodied memories and personal stories are able to emerge and begin dissolving collective or official memory.
 Typically the price of a ticket to a theatre production in a ‘mainstream’ theatre house in South Africa, cost between 50 and 200 Rand, depending on where it fell on the graph that delineated ‘mainstream’ from ‘community’.
 In South Africa, township refers to the urban living areas that, during Apartheid, were reserved for non-white South Africans. They were built on the periphery of towns and cities. Townships still exist in South Africa, post-Apartheid.
Since my inception (at the university) my motive for being an artist has always been a socio-political one — it was not to be a super star in television soapies, or to be famous, but to go back to my community and use creative arts as a transformative tool for the people. This seed was planted long before my professional encounter with theatre and my formal training; it was planted in high school arts and cultural activities where the use of arts was simple: for the mobilization, conscientization, and politicization of the students and the community at large. After my graduation, and after three years of acting training based on an individual approach, I resuscitated that original driving motive of theatre.
I was first reminded of what is art in society and what is society in art, what is its purpose and the aesthetic that supports that purpose. I then imagined myself in the past: a couple of decades ago, just graduated from various life experiences, formalized and informal institutions, from interactions of various philosophies and pedagogues of creatives arts and theatre, all mixed up with the fast beating heart of cultural aesthetics that is subconsciously embedded deep in my African being and can only be accessed by metaphors and in fragmentation of incidence, representations, and presentations.
These are the stories from my grandmother and mother, these are my poems, metaphors and idioms from my father, they are the smells, and tastes that remind me of home, and their absence in any form of engagement stimulates homesickness. I need them to understand my world.
Imagine a monster in a cave, stamping and howling for food.
Imagine the first airplanes and disputed borders.
Imagine infants being fed into gaping mouths of the gods.
Imagine the south wall of Jerusalem, where the followers of Moloch gathered, their drums drowning out the screams of the sacrificed children as the knives thrust in.
Imagine Moloch’s appetite – it must be appeased. We make gestures.
Imagine the inflamed minds of the revolutionaries trying to bring down the invincible empires, their blood running with new medicines.
Imagine the paint on the faces of the miners, deflecting the bullets at Marikana. Imagine their bullet wounds.
Imagine the General and his favoured Consort, a Queen in her own right, but born on the wrong side of the border.
Imagine the bold and black line, conceived of as an act of violence, (as the poet put it) marking off the rich from the poor, the righteous from the unknowing, the ethical from the immoral, the heathen from the true believer, the polygamist from the celibate virtuous.
Imagine the black line justifying the journey of the unmanned flying machines.
Imagine Daedalus in his laboratory, like some early Leonardo Da Vinci, designing the first flying machines.
Imagine Icarus, still a toddler, his running bum covered in vine leaves.
Imagine the poet’s father, shaping the inside of toilet rolls, with makeshift wings and large elastic bands.
Imagine that skinny man triumphantly flying these awkward and unfinished objects to the ceiling.
Imagine the craftsman, delicately gluing balsa wood and bits of the most fragile paper, to fashion the most beautifully shaped helicopter, a joy to perceive, but, actually ill conceived, unable to fly and bound to the earth.
Imagine the tearing line – ugly but functional or wondrous but earth-bound.
Imagine the labyrinth, with its twists and secret turns, with only a thread keeping us all from eternal darkness.
Imagine the Queen, her passions enflamed beyond reason, mating with a flying bull.
Imagine the moment of deadly ecstasy and pleasure as the queen is gored to her end by her son the Minotaur.
Imagine Tiresias, advisor to anyone who will listen, growing great provocative breasts every seven years, out of his ancient grey curled chest.
Imagine that same seer, his nose pushed into the magic crack in the Greek mountain, inhaling the sweet, dangerous, addictive, and wondrous smoke.
Imagine the monster and Icarus, enamoured, dancing at the same time.
Imagine Icarus, triumphant and high from the smoke, riding on the monster at midnight.
Imagine the monster howling with burdensome delight.
Imagine Icarus blackmailing his father to give him wings – he will kill the monster, fly and the gods be damned.
Imagine the bullfight. Imagine the minotaur dead.
Imagine Icarus, his wax wings spread wide, soaring into the sky.
Imagine Icarus, burnt by the sun, plunging into the ocean.
Imagine the devious gods saving him – he must take the killing machines and destroy anyone who crosses the border.
Imagine the first airmen of the USA air force, in their clumsy biplanes, destroying the hopes of the Mexican revolutionaries.
Imagine the brilliant design – the bullets passing through the propellers as if by magic.
Imagine the fronts of these awkward planes painted in war paint to terrorise the enemy.
Imagine the terrible pilotless fly machines, operated by an overheated Icarus.
Imagine the writhing bodies.
Imagine a triumphant Icarus flying into the heart of the burning rays.
Imagine Icarus, burnt by the sun, plunging into the ocean.
Imagine Icarus failing and the gods destroying him. Will he survive the fall?
Imagine Daedalus facing choice – Icarus must die.
Imagine the airman injecting himself with heroin.
Imagine the airman’s dream.
In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells how Daedalus, master craftsman, artist, and architect, created the Labyrinth at Crete so cunningly that he was barely able to escape it himself after he had built it. Daedalus was then imprisoned in a tower to prevent his knowledge of the labyrinth from spreading. With escape routes via land and water obstructed by Minos, he constructed two immense sets of wings that he and his son, Icarus, might use to flee by air. He warned his son not to fly too close to the sea, lest the water soak the feathers, nor too close to the sun, lest the heat melt the wax holding them together. But Icarus forgot himself in his airborne elation, the burning orb melted his wings, and he drowned in the sea. A father laments the consequences of his creations, which do more harm than good.
I could never, Neil
I could never be
(3000 strong the throng voicing some sort of struggle song
all the time it’s my body they carry along
lay it down low in the grave as they lift up high my name),
THAT could never be me,
I don’t have it in me.
I’m not the man that martyrs are made from.
The wrong song book so no Sousa, no Sontonga,
no glory no wonder at the way I may have lived on if I had lived on.
nothing but the wonder and the why’s as they examine my eyes locked forever in perpetual distance (into the future and farther, modeled as a modernist Guevara), more then just a man’s eyes now, more than man size, now I become more then just a man, I become canonized, categorized as a comrade of the cause, I become the cause, I cause what is to come, what is to be,
that’s what your eyes say to me and I know
to be, Neil, that could never be me.
Neil, me, Neil, I?
Too much I kneel already.
Prostrate position under the weight of whatever I still carry from when you first lent your weight to what would be mine … my whiteness carries a weight without the worthiness that yours did where your skin was an open page to write resistance on.
mine is a closed cage there is no distance from.
Neil, under your weight I have to kneel, and dream of your fight to never kneel.
Neil, your weight continues to bend backs of those that carry a cause forward coz four words work where whole poems have failed, four words like:
“Hasta la Victoria siempre” simply they say: we carry the weight
heavy until light
streams into what
seems perpetual night, like
Neil, I’ve dreamed you.
Neil, you might’ve dreamed me.
But Neil, I could never be you.
Neil, before you never was I as bruised by what white is,
before you never was I as confused by what white is,
before you was a whiteness you challenged with patient wisdom,
kneel before you with the hopes of being blessed with similar vision.
Now your eyes are static signs of how short a lifetime can be.
Now I know that what they show is it’s not in me to kneel,
So, To Neil:
We miss you and your mysterious mind. All the wisdom it held we would reveal.
STAGE DIRECTION: SHIFT THE LIGHTS
[Reduce presence; sink into self; contained in a corner; stoic and static and:]
Voice (of Neil?):
“It was never going to be isolation that did me. This isolation they used, intending to abuse me into bruised sanity was never going to work. I was too used to isolation and its usefulness to me and my wanderings within. There was isolation in everything I had made mine, including my mind. Isolation was a friend. It’s in the way that my soul’s weighted: to be isolated is no danger to me. It’s where I’m found most free: in me and my world’s work. There was their danger: my world’s work. There was their world: my work’s danger was that their world wanted less of me. Irony really. There wasn’t much of me to begin with. Just enough to work its way into their fears, to get under their skin. They couldn’t understand a man working within their world but working against them, from within their world, from under (from within) their skin. When you’re white you can go either way. When you can go either way you usually go away from what’s white. At least I did. There was the fright: white man goes wrong way. Catch him. Contain him. Put him away. Let him be alone…without knowing that that’s exactly where he wanted to be…isolation would never end me…it had to be something else…some other sort of suffocation if I wouldn’t suffocate myself.”
 Neil Aggett (1953-1982) was a white South African medical doctor and trade union organizer who died while in detention after being arrested by the South African Security Police.
Joe Langley, a dapper gentleman of 79, had worked as a car-guard outside the Playhouse theatre in the inner-city of Durban for the past 20 years of his life. Be it a matinee or a late-night cabaret, Joe was always there—as much a fixture of the pavement as the nearby fire hydrant—dressed in his Sunday best, sitting in his deck chair, and watching over theatre patron’s cars.
Usually within five minutes of parking, greeting Joe, and dashing to either a rehearsal or performance, he would manage to regale me with a brief episode from his furiously lived and richly remembered life. He was one of the most accomplished and compulsive storytellers I would ever have the fortune of meeting.
More often than not, Joe’s monologues tended to be more engrossing than the ones that played upon the stages of the theatre, and there were many times where I found myself sneaking out at interval to sit with him on the sidewalk instead. Over time, I began to scribble his stories in notebooks, notating the script of his life complete with his meticulously narrated stage directions.
“Oh the stars,” he would say, recalling his many nights spent at sea when he worked as a whaler in the 60’s. “We travelled to the ends of the earth on that ship and I tell you, some nights, we touched heaven out there, my friend. To my dying day, I’ll never forget those stars…stars above and stars below…it was like we were drifting through the center of the universe.”
I was dismayed to learn that over his twenty years of service, Joe had never once attended a show inside the theatre. The ticket prices were more then he could afford and an idle afternoon’s entertainment would set him back on his room’s rent for the night.
Then Joe’s health took a turn for the worse and he was admitted to a local hospice. The day before he passed I was fortunate to steal him away for an afternoon. I wheeled him into the Playhouse theatre and we sat together in the vast auditorium as the orchestra tuned up and house lights dimmed.
As the curtain rose, Joe watched his memories unfold on the stage. Before him an animated museum of his life plays out, accompanied by an orchestra in full flight. The cast consists of actors, singers, dancers, musicians, all friends and artists who had interacted with Joe on a daily basis in the parking bays, be it on their way to rehearsals or performances at the theatre. Together the company craft and recreate scenes from his life, every embellishment intact. Joe is spun through time and memory. Old Joe tap dances with young Joe in glorious musical numbers reminiscent of the MGM ones he grew up admiring as a child at the Bioscope in District Six.
“This is my story,” he says clasping his hands to his mouth. “These people are telling my blerry story!”
Each recollection re-imagined and re-enacted: his stint as a car-guard, gangster, a diamond smuggler, carpenter, the first time he shot a man and realized that life wasn’t quite like the movies, that it had repercussions lasting beyond the rolling of the credits, his many narrow escapes from death, the first time he set eyes on his wife in a District Six dance hall (with Billie Holliday playing in the background), the forced removals, the birth of his precious children. His seafaring adventures are told via an exquisitely realized shadow-play.
For the finale the theatre goes dark and a breathtaking image is conjured: a thousand suspended light bulbs flicker over a vast mirrored stage.
“En nou?” he says with tears in his eyes.
“Those, Joe… those are your stars,” I whisper.
He clutches my hand as the curtain falls.
While there is a rich history of South African protest theatre in the early 1970s and 80s, the presence of radical inclusive theatre has dwindled, and a massive divide between ‘community theatre’ and what’s considered ‘professional’ theatre prevails. The bitter irony is that the stories from the collective hearts and minds of everyday South Africans are equally enthralling, relevant and moving, yet are rarely made manifest on the South African stage. The story of Joe Langely in “Eulogy” reveals two significant oversights in contemporary South African theatre, one deeply contextual and the other universal. The first reveals Joe’s lifetime of exclusion from theatre, like the majority of South Africans, theatre is an ‘in-joke’, a black box of white privilege. If theatre could be re-imagined in South Africa, it would need to include lower class black communities, and should in some part stage locally relevant stories.
Furthermore, it is in Joe’s dying that we are witness to a larger, more universal, exclusion of the elderly, senile and dying, not from theatre per say, but from society at large. On the greater societal stage of life, getting old, falling terminally ill, or losing one’s grasp with memory slowly immerses the infirm person in a sterile and medicated liminal zone, a punitive purgatory. Here, living is overshadowed by the close approaching finality of death. JM Barrie’s Peter Pan notoriously proclaimed: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” Perhaps Peter is right, who knows? If Joe could speak from the other side of the curtain he might be able to enlighten us. What we do know is dying in the 21st century, however, is that the process of dying has become a pathological, medicated, sterile, and lonely domain of suffering. Death is a taboo that is quickly made invisible, much like the invisible life worlds of lower class South Africans that are excluded from theatre. Coppen’s remedy for theatre is one of cathartic inclusion; it is a curative place for the resurrection of the excluded to move through difficult and delightful memories together.
The death of heritage and the death of the individual are deeply intertwined in this piece, both figuratively and literally. Cultural death is profoundly highlighted in Joe’s living Eulogy. The biographic library that could potentially smoulder in the ashes of Joe’s death, is proactively preserved from the flames through theatrical witnessing and archiving of life. Coppen points to the dying of cultural heritage in South Africa through exclusionary theatre in the figurative death of Joe, while at the same time reveals the role theatre could play in society at large, particularly in palliative care. Coppen’s imagined theatre is one that archives life and challenges morality and mortality, for the omitted and for the dying citizens of South Africa the audience sees itself, and the mortal are made immortal between theatre’s velvet wings and under the warm glow of theatrical lights, not surgical ones.
It’s a performance about parents and children, about generations and time, about a beautiful, troubled nation, about race, about a father imagining a reconciled future for his son, about a father, who is also a son, protesting oppression by telling stories from his and his father’s life to strangers in the darkened theatres of Broadway, Yale Rep, the Mark Taper Forum, the West End.
It’s a performance about collaboration across barriers and its limits, about authorship and embodiment, about identity, about the sacrifices that dignity makes to survival, about revival and resurrection and international fame and fortune, about betrayal and friendships and ego, about telling a story that comes true and one that doesn’t and the distance between them.
Lights up. We see the father as a young man. We see his son playing him, telling stories from his father and his grandfather’s lives. We see the understanding between these men and their three generations. We see the ways in which there will never be understanding. We see both the father and the son’s performances simultaneously, superimposed, occupying the same utopian time.
Because history repeats itself, because the library sits across the table from you, because young people think democracy came after Mandela’s release, because the past is a nightmare from which the father is trying to awake, because he dreams of running, escaping, jumping, because there are so many memories, so much baggage, because the performance cuts close to the bone.
We see them acknowledge each other. We see the great palimpsest: the father, young in the echoes of his son’s performance, the son aged in the echoes of his father’s revival. We see their imagined future come to momentary fruition. We see it disappear. The grandfather, long dead, speaks, “Never call me to see your play. That’s not a play. It’s a political meeting.” Blackout.
South Africa entered my consciousness in 1994 when I was twelve years old. While a chorister in the Washington National Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, I met anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he visited the District of Columbia shortly after the elections that catapulted Mandela into the presidency. Full of the euphoria of that moment, Archbishop Tutu invited the entire congregation to stand up, stretch out their arms, and declare, “We are free! All of us together! We are free!” South Africa’s freedom had set all of us free. That is how it felt in Washington, D.C. in 1994. Years later, as I began to research and think about South African theatre, I learned that Tutu’s optimism–his hope for the future–had a history, the artifacts of which could be found in one of the only forms of apartheid-era mass communication: the anti-apartheid theatre. In 1987, protest artist Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina! rehearsed Nelson Mandela’s release from prison–three years before it occurred. Ngema claimed in our September 2013 interview, “when Mandela walked out of prison, his first speech that he did in Cape Town, it was as though he had read Sarafina!’s script. He uttered exactly the same words.” This hope for the future explains how events can be imagined on stage and then occur in reality. My imagined performance is the story of what happens when these hopes do not come to fruition, triggering a paradoxical nostalgia for an idea of the future that existed in the past.
One of the ways that post-1994 South African theatre artists deploy their longing for their country’s non-sexist, non-racial future is through revivals of protest plays, which use anti-apartheid rhetoric to speak to post-apartheid issues. In 2006, the State Theatre in Pretoria hosted an original cast revival of perhaps the most famous South African protest play, Sizwe Banzi is Dead. The play resulted from a 1972 collaboration among black South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona and white playwright Athol Fugard. At the time, collaboration across the color line was extremely difficult and dangerous due to the country’s pass laws. Nonwhites were forced to carry passbooks with them that restricted their movements and controlled nearly every aspect of their lives, including where they could look for work. Black laborers had to travel to the city for work, but had to return to their segregated townships at night. Sizwe addresses these draconian pass laws. The play concerns Sizwe, a man who has come from the country looking for work but who does not have the proper work seeker’s permit. He and his friend Buntu decide to drown their sorrows at a local shebeen, or speakeasy. While returning home, they find a murdered man with the proper work seeker’s permit in his passbook. Buntu exchanges the photos in the passbooks so that Sizwe effectively dies and is reborn as another man’s ghost, one with a valid work seeker’s permit.
Both Kani and Ntshona were members of the Serpent Players, an amateur dramatic group directed by Athol Fugard. As the Serpent Players began to break apart due to a number of its members being arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island for membership in the banned African National Congress party, Kani and Ntshona quit their jobs and decided to devise a piece of theatre with Fugard so that they could pursue performing full-time. After several attempts at devising different scenarios stagnated, either Ntshona or Fugard—their stories differ—mentioned having seen an intriguing photograph of a black man in a nice suit smiling with a pipe in one hand and a cigarette in the other. This became their “mandate.” Why was the man in the photograph smiling? The only reason a black man had to smile in South Africa would be because he had his passbook in order. Beginning in 1974, Fugard began to tell the story of the development of Sizwe to international journalists. In Fugard’s version, he is the one who saw the picture in a photographer’s window. Kani and Ntshona have consistently maintained that Ntshona saw the photograph in a friend’s album.
Fugard’s claim to Sizwe’s authorship rests on the 1974 Oxford University Press published script, which prominently featured Fugard’s name and somewhat less prominently displayed Kani and Ntshona’s names. Prior to this edition, the play existed only in the minds of its actors so as to evade South Africa’s censors. In creating the Oxford script, Fugard transcribed a number of different audio recordings of live performances, cutting them together, and adding his own embellishments. For Kani and Ntshona’s original cast revival in 2006, they did not use the Oxford script. Instead, they highlighted their own embodied authorship by relying on a single recording of a performance from the late 1970s. The recent 2015 production of Sizwe — directed by Kani with his son, Atandwa Kani playing the part that his father originated opposite Mncedisi Shabangu as Sizwe — used a 2008 recording of the original revival in performance as its script. This reliance on recordings of live performances rather than on Fugard’s written script creates an oral tradition of embodied authorship that evades easy categorization or archivization.
Kani and Ntshona, under Fugard’s direction, created Sizwe from the material of their own lives and the lives of their friends and families. In one poignant moment, Buntu discusses how his father had a blue Stetson hat that he wore to church on Sundays and no one was allowed to touch it, but as soon as a white man approached him on the street, he would take off the hat and crush it in his hands. This is a true story about Kani’s own father. When I spoke with Kani, he told me about his father attending the performance and telling his son, “You don’t understand. You may think that we were subservient. It hurt us to take that hat off. But there were two options: I take my hat off or I get in the police van and what would you do?” In Atandwa’s hands, this speech takes on added weight, because he is playing his father, speaking about his grandfather. Atandwa has played his father in Hayani, another two-person theatre piece, which he devised with actor Nat Ramabulana. When I asked John Kani about Hayani, he replied, “I did this to my father [by putting his life on stage].” While the published script of Sizwe is assigned set work for matric (high school) students, Sizwe as a living historical document, an oral tradition passed from father to son, an embodied memory of life under apartheid continues to perform the gap between South Africa’s imagined reconciled future and its present reality.
 Mbongeni Ngema, interview with the author, 19 September 2013.
 Athol Fugard, Statements: Three Plays, (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1974): vi.
 I have written about this authorship debate in “Resurrecting Sizwe Banzi is Dead (1972-2008): John Kani, Winston Ntshona, Athol Fugard and Postapartheid South Africa,” Theatre Survey, Vol. 50 (2009): 91-118.
 John Kani, interview with the author, 24 January 2015.
 Atandwa Kani, interview with the author, 8 February 2015.
Vista 1: A darkened auditorium with risers climbing twenty feet in the air. We see a packed house. The audience stares straight ahead. Shadows of the dancers it is watching dart energetically across the audience as a cello concerto crescendos. A few people squirm in their thin, navy, “Standard Bank”-emblazoned seat cushions. A teenager in front not-so-discretely pulls out a glowing rectangle to pop off a quick text. A man in the center wretches right and then left, trying in vain to get rid of the crick in his neck.
The music slows, and the shadows of the dancers follow suit. The silhouettes of two hands yawn towards one another—across the audience—meeting in the center as the music fades.
Lights down. After a brief moment, slow claps build to a thunder. Sharp, piercing whistles ring out. Lights come back up. The standing ovation begins immediately.
A few people don’t clap, but instead grab coat, hat, and gloves, and navigate down the risers to escape. They receive much shade from the cheering audience. As they open the exit door a bright, white light floods the auditorium, and the sound of marimbas drowns out the cheering crowd.
Vista 2: A chilly street just outside the auditorium. The marimba music that ended the previous scene continues through the whiteout, and now provides accompaniment that oscillates between quiet, virtuosic solos and mighty full-ensemble jam-out sessions. (author’s note: The music imagined here is the Ilithi Lelanga Marimba Ensemble, but any musical performance from Cape Town, Johannesburg, or Durban can be substituted, so long as it can make a party).
As the light fades, we see stretched out before us a long street built not of asphalt, but of a seemingly infinite tessellation of rectangular show posters, lain side by side like bricks. The road stretches towards a church in the distance, and is lined up and down with merchant tents, food trucks, and carpets where local women have lain out their homemade jewelry to sell.
A minibus taxi rounds the corner in a hurry; it is rushing patrons to a performance venue across the city. The lead marimba player sees this and quickly lays down a sizzling ditty; the taxi stops dead in its tracks—its electricity completely shot. A well-to-do woman, extremely late for her show, jumps out of the taxi and jogs frantically down the poster-lined road. She stops short when she hits a cloud of ganja smoke from a group of Rastafarians selling beanies, sandals, patches, and drums colored in all combinations of red, green, and yellow.
The woman rubs her eyes and blinks twice. She now notices the group of adolescent children from town just nearby, who are dancing traditional Zulu pair dances to the marimba music. She joins the small crowd that has gathered to watch them and puts the 120 rand she was going to spend on her show—which has now quite forgotten—into a hat being passed around.
A police officer passing by witnesses this. She ignores the ganja smoke and her orders to check the immigration status of festival merchants; instead, she saunters down the street, shimmying with the beat.
Vista 3: We have followed the police officer to another market square amidst several Victorian neo-gothic churches that are being used as performance venues. For the moment, the streets are almost empty since shows are commencing inside. On the wall of one church, we see a graffito picturing Steve Biko with the caption “Fuck Festival of the Rich” scrawled underneath. The words were written a long time ago, but have never been coated over by city authorities or touched up by the author—the paint is now old and peeling.
If we listen closely, we can still faintly hear the marimbas, but for the moment, the soundscape is dominated by a blind old man playing keyboard and singing out in isiXhosa. A middle-aged couple dance around him; nearby, two children (ages 8 and 10) wearing white face paint, sunglasses, beanies, and extremely baggy clothing stand perfectly motionless. They are statues for the moment; they wait for people to toss coins to them so they can dance the boogaloo as entertainment. Perhaps at some point this happens.
An economist from the local university rushes towards one of the churches to hand out post-show demographic surveys. As she nears the building the doors swing open and the audience clambers out into the streets, passing her by. In fact, all the shows have somehow ended at the same time, and the street has become flooded with activity.
The palpable buzz of the crowd threatens to drown out the singing man, but a long line of musicians arrive to augment his tune: Hare Krishnas chanting their repetitive chorus, a Kwaito DJ providing bass drops at opportune moments, a dreadlocked white guy playing guitar. The music never slips to cacophony, but steadily grows into an ever more complex series of interlocking melodies.
The economist tries fervently to hand out questionnaires, but it’s a madhouse—and she has another show to get to. She tosses the questionnaires into the air and they cascade down onto the crowd. She begins walking to the opposite end of the long, poster-lined street.
What would it mean to imagine a festival dramaturgically? Can the frenetic, experiential, inherently polyvocal qualities of a festive “vibe” be effectively reproduced on the page? Or does the dramatic mode, with its demand for a singular structural progression, do inherent violence to the multifaceted ways in which festivals perform? These philosophical questions for the theatre intersect with the materiality of a postapartheid South Africa that increasingly understands itself as a festival capital, as a place where “creative cities” form a central focus of current economic policymaking. In this context, my imagined theatre attempts a double-move grounded in the specificity of the tiny dorp of Grahamstown during the annual National Arts Festival.
It begins by converting the theatrical audiences that “take in” festival shows into objects of theatricality, a preparatory move that implicates spectators as participants in the production of the city aesthetic that follows. Articulations of this aesthetic take place in the next two “vistas,” a term which I have chosen over “scenes” because they require no sense of dramatic arc, and because they allude to a kind of futurity untethered from the stringency of the now. Instead of a logical progression of dramatic action, these vistas are self-contained worlds that seamlessly pass into and out of one another through shifting audio-visual aesthetic paradigms (the vistas, in fact, are interchangeable and can be reiterated into infinity).
I based this imagined theatre off three years of ethnographic observation of Grahamstown’s “11 Days of Amazing!” I combined images, people, and stories I recorded during this fieldwork with my own take on pressing civic tensions: the securitization of city space, the neoliberalization of the festival organization, the racialized bifurcation of street arts and theatergoing. Perhaps those who have attended the Grahamstown festival may see something of their experience represented in these grounded details; but, in some ways, the idyllic Grahamstown constructed here, bears little resemblance to the Grahamstown of today—it is utopic, meant in the best sense of the word.
Festinos always seek a mythical “vibe,” a special affect created when art feels exciting and fresh, when diverse performance traditions intersect, when racial and socio-cultural barriers wither away to allow fleeting moments of communality. By momentarily embracing the tyranny of the dramatic form I hope I have created some semblance of the atmospheric qualities of the best moments of today’s festival vibe, while also emplotting an aspirational vision of a vibe yet to come.
“Extreme theatre” or the “Theatre of Other” is about audiences willingly putting themselves in situations of discomfort, to be challenged intellectually, morally, emotionally, and even physically, much like adrenalin junkies place themselves in danger in order to experience some kind of thrill.
This theatre may take any form – comedy, drama, satire, traditional observation, immersive theatre, etc – but it is essentially about one group or community challenging the values, ideas, perceptions of others. While it is not primarily about binary oppositions, examples could be a theatre piece created on behalf of the gay community for straight audiences, or black theatre-makers presenting a piece specifically for white audiences, or women for men, Muslims for people of other faiths, physically-challenged for the able-bodied, refugees for local inhabitants and so on.
The primary aim of this theatre is to allow audiences to confront, engage with, and overcome their ignorance and fears about “others.”
Imagine an “extreme” theatre of “otherness”:
- It must never be performed in traditional theatre-spaces. The spaces in which they happen – both the physical spaces and the geographical location – must themselves be challenging. So, for white audiences in South Africa, it might mean going into someone’s home in a black township; for straight audiences, it might mean going to a gay bar; for able-bodied audiences, it might mean leaving their homes and experiencing the performance entirely in wheelchairs.
- Audiences are never larger than 50 with smaller numbers – like 20 – being optimal. This is theatre that builds relationships, that seeks to humanize otherness, so that smaller audiences are obliged to be confronted by, and engage with, the otherness being performed for them, rather than being able to “hide” in large groups/audiences.
- The audience and theatre participants must commit to at least two performances/theatrical experiences, one performed by, or on behalf of, each group or community, and both these performances must happen within a maximum of four weeks. Each group/community has an opportunity to engage with the other through theatre. So, for example, in week one, a theatre performance on behalf of, or by women, is presented to an audience comprised primarily of men. In week three or four, the audience is comprised of the women who performed in the first week; now the men who watched the first performance stage a theatrical experience representing their fears, insights, responses to the piece they saw.
- The performances or theatrical experiences may either be created and performed by members of the different “groups” or communities, or – preferably – be created and presented by professional theatre-makers who devise a piece based on the input of each group. As professionals, they are also able to improvise, under the direction of the audience or a facilitator.
- No performance or experience happens without some discussion/dialogue taking place afterwards, under the guidance of a skilled facilitator. There is, however, a strict time limit (e.g. one hour) on this discussion so as to keep it focused. As the subjects and the theatre pieces might be provocative and intentionally challenging, it is imperative that the subsequent discussions – whether in smaller groups of with the full audience or both (depending on the subject and the audience) – is guided by someone skilled in managing conflict and in dealing with people confronting a possible major change in perspective. Traditional theatre leaves an audience to make of the work what they will afterwards; Theatre of OTHER seeks transformation, with post-performance dialogues aimed at reinforcing the learnings, the challenges, the alternate understandings.
- Engaging in such shared theatre experiences should ultimately lead audience members to build relationships with the “other”; the content of the theatrical pieces, the style of presentation, the geographical and physical spaces, the facilitated dialogues, and the creation of comfortable social spaces subsequent to the presentation of both pieces, should help to facilitate such relationships. Possibly, a toolkit could be created providing audience members with “follow-up” ideas, together with a database of the attendees (those willing to engage subsequently). Such “follow-ups” could entail communal dinners in each other’s homes, social history tours of each other’s neighborhoods, engaging in a voluntary action together such as painting a local creche, or developing a community garden.
The stage/performance space is black.
It is black.
And lit with fire, with flames of crimson and ochre, indigo, African violet, bitter lemon and aloe-green.
few of whom have been on stage before,
Including Karoo, Modjadji, koringtaal,
and the sound of two
oceans making love.
stomp, gesture, contemplate, wail,
spit, cajole, teach, interrogate
and laugh their asses off.
As one story finishes, a new generation takes it place.
We breathe in.
We do it again.
And again …