Brett Bailey's quest for social justice is an antidote to people who are opposed to diversity and tolerance.
Ever since a chicken was slaughtered by sangomas on the Baxter stage during a performance of Brett Bailey's play iMumbo Jumbo 11 years ago, the playwright has been regarded as the over-the-top enfant terrible of South African theatre. Regrettably. The perception has tended to muddy the deeper significance of his work, whose declared aim is to serve as a catalyst for positive social change.
He's a dramatist who pushes theatrical boundaries beyond the comfort zones of both audiences and performers, as in works such as Big Dada (the rise and fall of Idi Amin) and Ipi Zombi? (dealing with a witch hunt). He's uncompromising.
His radical take on Verdi's 19th-century reinterpretation of the Shakespeare tale Macbeth is so close to home it hurts: a Congolese warlord and his ambitious wife murder the king and unleash mayhem against a terrifyingly familiar background of ethnic atrocities, multinational duplicity and vicious militias. With 12 musicians and 12 opera singers, the performance is a tighter version of the Macbeth opera he first did 12 years ago with students.
It's an unflinching masterpiece that, along with Bailey's bold repertoire of works highlighting the evils of racism and colonialism, is why the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation selected him for the 2014 World Theatre Day message, an annual institution launched half a century ago by the French playwright Jean Cocteau.
World figures who have reflected on the theme of theatre and the culture of peace include Laurence Olivier, Wole Soyinka, Arthur Miller, Peter Brooks, Richard Burton, Eugene Ionesco, John Malkovich and Judy Dench.
Bailey's own speech, translated into 20 languages, ended with burning questions: "In this world of unequal power, in which various hegemonic orders try to convince us that one nation, one race, one gender, one sexual preference, one religion, one ideology, one cultural framework is superior to all others, is it really defensible to insist the arts should be unshackled from social agendas?
"Are we, the artists of arenas and stages, conforming to the sanitised demands of the market, or seizing the power we have to clear a space in the hearts and mind of society?"
Even though the awards he has won include two Fleur du Caps, two FNB Vitas and one Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year, his theatre company, Third World Bunfight, based at the Stellenbosch wine estate Spier, struggles to survive financially.
It saddens him, he tells me, "that a company like ours, in demand all over Europe – Macbeth will be presented in 10 European cities this year – can barely ever show our works at home."
Now a bearded, nicotine-driven 47, Bailey grew up in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. "Dad worked in computers at Shell and Mom wifed the house. Theatre wasn't really something we did. We saw Fiddler on the Roof, Mame and not much else."
Studying for a University of Cape Town degree in drama, he was introduced to black performers by Mavis Taylor's New Africa Theatre Project.
After obtaining a postgraduate diploma in performance studies from the Amsterdam theatre school, DasArts, he spent several months living with sangomas, developing what he calls "a performance vocabulary rooted in this country", which resulted in ritualistic works such as iMumbo Jumbo.
He rents a cottage at Spier but he generally spends about six to seven months abroad presenting works or venue scouting.
"In Paris last year, we presented our OTT [over-the-top] house music camp spectacular, House of the Holy Afro, and EXHIBIT B a couple of days apart. In the first, people were up on their feet dancing. In the second, people were deeply moved, weeping, pensive. I flatter myself that my works are universal and affect people in different ways.
"I believe one of my functions as an artist, and a human being who cares about justice and equality, is to shake up the lazy, prejudiced, fearful beast that is society. I really believe theatre can have the power to make a difference, and I drive myself to make multilayered, deep, conscious works.
"If I dabble in edgy territory, there will always be those who are offended and outraged by what I do, even those with whom I thought my views were aligned. Take the punches and keep moving."
Brett Bailey's new Macbeth opera runs at Artscape from April 23 to 26.