Arts and Culture

Stages of identity

Greg Homann

An academic study dedicated to exploring South African drama could easily be viewed as a turgid exercise in promoting scholarly jargon.

Experiments in Freedom: Explorations of Identity in New South African Drama by Anton Krueger
(Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

An academic study dedicated to exploring South African drama could easily be viewed as a turgid exercise in promoting scholarly jargon, but Anton Krueger’s lucid and sharp interrogation of recent South African play texts should interest far more than the handful of dwindling theatre historians who are still alive and well in South Africa.

Experiments in Freedom begins with a dedication to all those who keep dedicating their lives to the creation of theatre, or, as Krueger puts it, “this strange ancient ritual”. The local theatre, drama and performance industry often feels oddly like an insular community that presents the results of its creative exercises on a public platform where the work lives for a short time and then dissipates into the ether. Publishers rarely see the value in allowing local play texts that reflect on this art form to make their way to the printing press. So Krueger’s doctoral thesis on recent South African drama is something of a prized oddity.

In his postmodern approach to the study, Krueger pulls together theories and anecdotes from sociology, psychology, philosophy, anthropology and world history, and includes the odd Greek parable. After the substantial framing of his approach, he uses four broad areas of investigation—gender, opposition to apartheid, ethnicity and syncretic forms of identity—and he uses this framework to analyse a selection of plays that have been published in the English language since 1994.

These include works by our most lauded contemporary playwrights such as Athol Fugard, Zakes Mda, Anthony Ackerman, Mike van Graan, Greig Coetzee, Brett Bailey, Reza de Wet and Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom, as well as a brief account of the contribution physical theatre has made to our theatrical landscape.

His emphasis is on textual narration and characterisation, which aptly allows him to question the ways identity is constructed through the act of an expressive form such as playwriting.

With elegant wit and an almost boyish playfulness that is rare in such an academic exercise, Krueger argues that plays can be used not only to describe identity but that theatre is also a place to create identities.

In questioning the transformative potential of theatre he reminds us that the space created for a dramatic performance may perhaps be one of the last meeting places where a group can share in a transformative ritual, where meaning is created and notions of identity are challenged. In simple terms Krueger affirms that “going to the theatre is thus an enormously powerful exercise in identity formation as one’s sense of self is pushed and pulled in various directions”.

In a country that is often perceived to be full of people struggling with an identity crisis, Experiments in Freedom affirms that we have an opportunity to break free from the burden of identity structures created under apartheid—where race was by far the mainstay of that narrative—and instead construct entirely new forms of identification. In addition, Krueger speculates that perhaps our various traditions that have been celebrated post-1994 “may have been nurturing, but they might also be limiting”.

In this sense the book is inspiring as it recognises the great possibilities of individuals to redefine themselves and it challenges artists of all kinds to question what they have done with their freedom. Where apartheid gave us a single oppressive narrative, now we have many stories to tell and surely many stories are preferable to any single story.

Krueger’s work gives no answers and this is no criticism. He rightly postulates that identities are unstable; they are not static. More importantly, from the plays he has selected he excavates the clues that help us better understand the kinds of complex people we are. One of many interesting insights he pulls from the texts he analyses is how some of us have adapted whereas others have become destabilised by the idea of freedom.

The book is structured in concise chapters, each of which serves as strands, making a rhizome that circles and turns on itself. This carefully considered structure strengthens the logic of its subject matter, reinforcing the idea that “one of the advantages of fiction is that it allows one to explore approaches to identity which might be contradictory”.

Although this publication will undoubtedly be an invaluable contribution to further academic studies within its field, it is also an informative read for anyone curious enough to think about who they are and how they are (un)defined within South Africa.

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