Articles on SA Theatre

By: Brent Meersman  11-11-2011
Keywords: theatre, Festivals

Saartjie Botha
One of Afrikaans theatre’s leading playwrights is the author of Untitled.
I understand the work is developing in rehearsal at present. Is this not a text-based work?
No, in essence it is a play about the failing of language, where we live in a country with eleven official languages and people don’t understand one another and they don’t have the ability to formulate in a third or a fourth language.
People struggle to express themselves not only from language constraints but also emotionally. Secondly, it is about fear and how it manifests in terms of language. On the third level, it is about the death of a woman in a crime situation.

Does the work speak to the xenophobic violence of recent?
It wasn’t conceived that way, but it’s interesting because suddenly there is this new thing that is forcing its way inside. It wasn’t intended, but this is an organic process.

Why has Afrikaans theatre retreated from Grahamstown?
It’s not financially viable. It’s the most expensive festival to attend from a production point of view. The fringe festival can’t compete with the main in terms of ticket prices. It’s a difficult festival if you’re not on the main programme. Also in terms of the Afrikaans festival calendar, the week before is the InniBos festival in Nelspruit [25 – 29 June] and then the week after it’s the Volksblad-Kunstefees in Bloemfotnein [8 – 13 July] which is a fantastic festival because you only perform in theatres.
However, for many Afrikaans [theatre practitioners] Grahamstown is still the festival to be. I like to attend it, but not partake.
But even in Cape Town, you don’t see a lot of Afrikaans theatre. It’s safer for producers to go to Stellenbosch, because they know they have an audience.
Festen was the only full-scale production in Afrikaans last year [in Cape Town]
I don’t know why it is happening that Afrikaans theatre is not part of mainstream theatre in South Africa anymore.

Chuma Sopotela
This young actress is now one of the Western Cape’s most sought after performers. Her “the foot has no nose”, an avant garde performance piece inspired by the deaths of five of her family members, caused a sensation at Spier Contemporary 2008. She won the Fleur du Cap Award for Best Actress this year. Sopotela will perform in Untitled at the festival.

Your work is wide ranging from character roles and physical theatre to performance art. Where do you see your future as an artist?
There is always a reason. In each project I discover something about myself. I want to work with as many directors as I can. Sometimes I do clowning work for kids, but it is all part of personal development. My ultimate goal is to go and teach so I’m gathering tools for teaching when I’m older and wiser.

You used to do performances for the Treatment Action Campaign. Is your work motivated by social issues and social concerns?
The works I have done have always been personal stories that are effected by the things that happen in my society. These are personal stories that resonates with other people. My life has been a guided journey.

I know the work is Untitled, but if you had to give the work a different title what would you call it?
Moments of stillness.

Neville Engelbrecht
K Sello Duiker’s novel The Quiet Violence of Dreams about a young black man’s tortured rite of passage and his life as a rent boy has been adapted for the stage. Engelbrecht directs.

Is black homosexuality still taboo?
Talking to the cast, yes, among their friends the reactions they’ve had, especially for the straight guys. Some have had quite heavy reactions. It is not as bad as it was, but still definitely a stigma. The cast are very brave, obviously around the intimate scenes.

What do you see as problematic specifically for black homosexuals?
It is still a cultural taboo. It is still not talked about. White colonials are still blamed for bringing what is almost seen as a disease to Africa. African maleness is very specific.

How did K. Sello Duiker cope?
From what I know, he would not have admitted to being gay. He himself was never open about it, but I see lots of Sello in the book. His bouts of depression for instance.

How do you find self-actualisation in prostitution?
The way I see it, it is a life journey into manhood. The kind of messed up broken people he meets along the way informs him. He has to go into that underbelly world in order to see. In the creative arts, we understand that drama draws on the suffering, and that is also how the self-actualisation for him happens.

Nadia Davids
After the spectacular success of he first play (At Her Feet) Davids latest work examines the life of activist Cissie Gool in the play Cissie.

Biographical plays are notoriously hard to pull off. They easily turn into lecture theatre or dramatized essays. What techniques have you employed to avid this?
A diversity of characters speak offering different insights. I have people who are dismissive of her [Cissie Gool] legacy alongside people who ‘pedestalize’ her. Of course the truth falls somewhere in between. I saw Waren Beatty’s Reds recently and that for me was an extraordinary piece. How to avoid eulogising and mythologizing people whilst still celebrating their greatness. The use of tiny snippets of people speaking.

What phrase comes to mind when you think of Cissie Gool? If you had to write an epitaph to her what would it be?
Courage. “She led a rich and autonomous life.” Someoen who creates unbelievable possibilities in her life

How did you come across Gool’s story?
She has been in my consciousness from an early age. She was a friend of my grandfathers. I had an incredible hitory teacher Gail Weldon who encouraged us to find sotries. The archives were silent on Cissie Gool. So I spent time in the Cape Town archives going through newspapers and started interviewing people.
She led an unchartered and different life but was still claimed by everybody.
In the end it is an imagined piece. This is my Cissie, its not going to be everybody else’s.

What is the significance of Gool’s life?
The play is about Cissie Gool but it is also about District Six and forced removals. I’m interested in issues of performance and memory and performance as an act of history. What is the way in which we can talk about exile? about forced migration? There’s a poem by Mahmoud Darwish where he writes “we are the country of words speak speak so we can know the end of this tale”. Its about how story can rebuild place and rebuild people.

Rehane Abrahams
Performer and theatre practitioner Rehane Abrahams plays the role of Cissie Gool in Cissie.

You are co-founder of the women performing artists collective The Mothertongue Project for healing and transformation through art. How does Cissie relate to your work?
It’s about holding your power as a woman. A lot of words about power are being bandied about, but people don’t realise how deep and meaningful that is, and what a journey you have to go through as a woman to feel you stand in your own power and it’s unshakeable. It’s not something that comes from an aggressive or a defensive place, but from a true place with a lot of integrity

There’s a line in the play that says “she lives inside her beliefs” not next to them. There wasn’t a single part of her life where she wasn’t committed to her life. She is representative of an incredibly bravery. She buried her father. I don’t think it has ever happened in Cape Town before or since. She refused to stay at home. She went to the graveyard and buried her father with 300 men. She said there was no Koranic injunction forbidding her to do so.

Why was her story lost for so long?
None of the activists of that time (1940s – 50s) came to the fore. The people who were trying to resist the government at the time especially in Cape Town
exist in private narratives and personal histories. I have a brilliant photograph of my grandmother from that time [1940s] striding through the streets of Johannesburg with a massive hammer and sickle on her arm and a stern look on her face. We always wondered what was that about.

Mncedisi Shabangu
A versatile director and a star performer, Shabangu is co-writer and director of a mysterious new play Ten Bush.
How did you come across this strange and wonderful story?
We were originally going to rework Theatre de Complicite’s The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol but then we changed. I was working with a community theatre group in Komatiepoort. They were doing a story that was irrelevant to me at the time so I asked them to tell me a story. They told me this story and said it came from a farm called Ten Bush and I loved that name. I dreamt this story of a place where my people come from and they need a leader.

Did you find the unmarked graves?
The place used to be full of animals but a certain chief’s son hunted until he actually destroyed all the animals. He started killing people and burying them in unmarked graves, until he committed suicide. When it rains, you can find bones in the morning. I can relate the problems of that area to that story.

Ten Bush broke my heart. It is in the middle of a huge sugar plantation. There is no electricity, no tarred roads, just donkey carts. There are millions of snakes. But the people survive. It is far removed from modern civilisation. With this work, I want to give attention to this place.

How is it to co-write a work?
It is always difficult yet interesting. I know the story and every day I retold it to Craig [Higginson]. We make discoveries in the process. I come from a place about 30 minutes from there. We went to Ten Bush and we sourced some of the stories in the place and interviewed people.

Craig Higginson
Author Craig Higginson’s latest work deals with an extraordinary tale from the Limpopo.
What is the story of Ten Bush?
In our version, Ten Bush was built on the graves of the nine Swazi chiefs who were betrayed by the tenth chief, Ngomane, during a battle with the Sothos hundreds of years ago. Since then, the area has been cursed with poverty and famine, and the first daughter from Ngomane’s line has been barren.

Martha, Ngomane’s heir, is tasked at the beginning of the play to lift the curse by sacrificing her unborn daughter to appease the departed ancestors who still haunt Ten Bush. But Martha is barren and so orders her sister to sleep with her husband instead – a decision that has consequences neither Martha nor any of the other inhabitants of Ten Bush could have foreseen…

How does co-writing work? What are your roles?
This is the first time I have co-written a play. Potentially, it’s a minefield. The fact is that I would never have written this play alone – it comes from a deeper place in Mncedisi than it does in me. Mncedisi, after all, is more or less from the area and culture described in the play. As a white, English-speaking person, I wouldn’t have had the presumption to write this play alone.

How does the story speak to us in the here and now?
What is interesting about the people we met around Ten Bush is that they are as much concerned with events that happened three hundred years ago as they are with contemporary politics – in fact, I would argue that some of them are even more so. The village of Ten Bush also looks exactly as it must have fifty years ago.

What does the festival do for you? What do you wish the festival would do?
My play Dream of the Dog was on the Main Festival last year, but that is the first time I have had a play on at the festival. Before that I was working in the theatre in the UK. I think it’s a great festival – really as good as many other arts festivals around the world. For me, it exposes our work to audiences who wouldn’t necessarily see it in our home towns – both nationally and internationally – and it means that interesting new tensions and conversations start up between the different plays. The fringe is still going strong and is genuinely diverse. I think the Main festival faces the same challenges that all other theatres and festivals do: diversity and transformation are always issues. But I would also like to assert that most of those involved in the theatre community are forward-thinking people who provide an example that other citizens in our land should follow. The Market Theatre is going through a very good period, and is, I believe, as much a place of integrity and good quality theatre as it ever was during apartheid.

Martin Koboekae
Martin Koboekae has written and is directing a play about the life of Stephen Bantu Biko.
The blurb in the programme gives the impression this play will deal with Biko in a new way.
People know a lot about his writings and his political comments but not about his relationships with his colleagues, his girlfriend, the social moments he shared with other people. I want people to understand his ideas but also to understand the man behind the icon, who obviously like everybody else has flaws. It is a social and political perspective on him.

What was your artistic ambition for this work?
Like every playwright I hope people respond well, even those vocal BCM opponents will understand that Biko never regarded himself as a politician. He was a community activist. I designed the play to bring forth the ideas he spoke for but also his human side.

It is a dangerous thing to take on an icon.
I am aware of the risk I am taking. I will have opposition, but I have artistic license. I am entertaining, educating and bringing forth the risks Biko took as a person and not forgetting his youthful indiscretions.

The title is enigmatic Biko: Where the Soul Resides. What do you mean by this?
When I coined this title, I was thinking of the BCM, where black people found where they could be accommodated with comfort, dignity, where the black identity should reside.

What do you feel about transformation at the festival?
Last year I took a conscious decision not to go. I have been going to the festival with productions since 1992 for 14 consecutive years. I was not happy with how things were panning out. Only black people associated with mainstream theatres are considered. I tried four times for the Main. This is the fifth time and now I have been accepted.
People do not understand the difficulties a black artist is faced with in this country when he wants to do a black themed production. A white playwright, a white director will go to the township and produce a very ritualistic play about black people and they will put it on the Main. But if a black playwright does this then he is said to be alienating white audiences. Black ritualistic plays are only accepted if driven by white people. Black theatre practitioners are not given enough chance. Their artistic merit and quality is questioned.

Keywords: Festivals, theatre

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London newspapers carried the story, with the Guardian running the headline: “All-black South African acting company evicted from theatre”, and the District Six Museum offering the performers temporary use of their Homecoming Centre. The repertory company’s sole underwriter, Abraham, who likes to take the opportunities his patronage affords him to trumpet his activism in the 1970s, suddenly found himself on the receiving end of protest action.


Continental Europe

Dr Fischer’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Marcelinus Swartbooi, Josef van der Westhuizen, Chris Nekongo, Avril Nuuyoma. Survival of the Fittest (Marcus Omofuma Nigerian by Ken Paul Chukwunonye. The Age of Enlightenment - Angelo Soliman (Lamin Jammeh. Ready Mades / Found Objects.


London & West End

It is simply absurd to perform Chekhov in English with Russian accents; as absurd is it would be to try and imagine what kind of accent Julius Cesar or Oedipus would have attempting to pronounce modern English. If a character has an accent that belongs to their native language, and they are speaking in their native language – the Queen speaking English, GW Bush struggling along in American – that’s all very well.



Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was unapologetic about her infamous speech at Munsieville outside Johannesburg in 1986: “Together hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.. Only Winnie, played by Chantelle Grant, who has a remarkable resemblance to the young Winnie Mandela, and her father, Columbus are solo parts; the other rolls are covered by chorus members.


South Africa

Galgut notes that one of the earliest productions was in a prison in the United States – “the physical aspects of the play – the broken-down bodies, the endless state of waiting – were immediately intelligible to the audience. Well-known South African author Damon Galgut will direct Beckett’s landmark play with a dream team cast: David Isaacs as Estragon; Oscar Petersen as Vladimir; Martin le Maitre asPozzo; Graham Weir as Lucky.


World Theatre

South African artists have certainly made good at Edinburgh this year following in the footsteps of a history of quality productions at the festival by stalwart theatre practitioners such as Andrew Buckland, Mbongeni Ngema, David Kramer, Greg Coetzee, Paul Slabolepszy, Pieter-Dirk Uys and Nicholas Ellenbogen.