Art and sex make meaningful bedfellows

Thulani Chauke & Fana Tshabalala in Between Us

Thulani Chauke & Fana Tshabalala in Between Us

One would not expect a man over 50 years old to go to university to learn a lesson about sex. But that’s what happened to me when I attended the opening of the Sex Actually festival at Wits University Theatre on August 20.

The particular lesson in life did not come from behind the proscenium of the stage, but rather from a table upon which the Counselling and Careers Development Unit Division of Student Affairs had placed a stack of pamphlets ominously titled "Are you being Sexually Harassed?"

Well, the point of enlightenment came from a list of signs that hapless victims could use to identify that harassment was, inevitably, on the way.

The third was noted as "repeatedly asking a person out for dates", and I went cold as I realised how often I’d assumed that with charm and persistence I would find myself on the receiving end of lust at least, or love at most.

The annual Sex Actually festival takes place under the auspices of the Drama for Life programme, based at the Wits School of Arts. But don’t assume that the academic location means a totally pedagogic slant to what’s presented.

The festival’s opening was, for the second year in a row, spiced up with the appearance of a drag queen. The self-proclaimed Miss Facebook aka Crystal Carrington, in silver sequins, was quite frank about how she’d tied her manhood up between her legs and then hooked it to her bra strap between her shoulders. Judging from the audience, the festival is seen as a place of congregation for the campus’s gay and lesbian community. 

So there was a sense of openness and enjoyment even though serious moments came when the Drama for Life patron, Justice Edwin Cameron spoke about the murder and rape of township lesbians, and when Nomsa Mmope of the Gauteng Health Department spoke about the hazards for young women of being "dated" by sugar daddies.

The festival was started in 2008, when the Drama for Life director, Warren Nebe, hosted students from 17 African countries. A planned "intervention" would lead to the realisation that what is needed in Johannesburg now is the fostering of a space in which people who are doing work that is engaging youth and communities, as well as artists, could hold a dialogue.

"The idea of the programme, right from the beginning, was about crossing borders, crossing boundaries, reimagining how the arts can be used effectively in development work, health work, education and obviously [in the development of] arts and culture,” Nebe said in an interview.

"In terms of reimagining this we felt that one of the key areas of the programme was to reimagine how HIV and Aids was being readdressed on the continent, [education] having failed for 25 years.

"It was didactic, being fear driven. Information was being given but without any sense of the psychology, culture and spirituality that goes with the subject matter.

"The idea took off like wildfire and then we saw an opportunity for creating a festival that would serve as a network for artists and NGO workers to come together and to share their work."

This year’s festival kicked off with an exploration of masculinity by the 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist Award-winner for dance. Fana Tshabalala’s work titled Between Us was a two-hander in which twin males share in an ambiguous relationship of need and confrontation. There was a sense of codependence as well as a playing out, and breaking out, of male roles.

In the context of the festival, the idea that male bonding goes beyond sportsmanship and workplace frolics provided texture to discussions that will be held until the festival ends on August 31.

These discussions will be facilitated by experts and include trans-generational sex talk workshops, discussions about gender bias and gender-based violence, a substance abuse workshop, explorations of risk profiles and men only and women only gatherings.

Theatre productions this year include Megan Godsell’s Mistress Pandemonium Presents Bed of Roses, set at a Pride parade float building; Thembile Tshuma’s adaptation of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The River Between; Tefo Paya’s Morwa: The Rising Son about masculinity and rites of passage and Nhlanhla Mahlangu’s Chant, which is directed by the well-known performance artist Gerard Bester.

Nebe is emphatic that the festival should not be confined to the university campus where it was conceived. Previous events have taken place at the Hillbrow Theatre in the midst of the inner city dereliction, Kliptown Youth Centre, Ponte and the township of Westbury.

This year’s programme also features A Man of Men, a series of creative workshops at Leeuwkop prison. The workshop will culminate in a once-off performance for a small audience.

"The idea, ultimately, is to create a mobile festival out of this," Nebe said, "and to take it into villages as well as to other universities.

"Our mission is to hit campuses, and in untraditional ways: with flash mobs, interactive and site-specific performances.

"We don’t just want to use theatre, we also want to use dance because we have discovered that dance has been an inspiring space for South Africans to engage with these kinds of issues.

"With this festival we are reclaiming the space for the arts – the value of the arts – particularly the arts that deal with areas of development, communication and healing," Nebe said.

For programme details visit:

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse


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