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A nostalgia for truth

There is something foreknown about the set itself, its self-conscious gentility lovingly nurtured in the imagined space of the New Brighton township where Kani locates his characters. Take those covers on the back of the chair in which Kani will seat himself in just a few moments, those … ummm … antimacassars. The word surfaces from memory — and a certain comfort attaches to having found it. Looking around me, I find reassurance, too, in the discovery that the old wooden boards advertising fruit-sellers still hang from the upstairs galleries of the theatre, as they always did.

But the new South Africa is as much about the illusion of sameness as it is about the illusion of difference.

Materially, those wooden signboards might be unaltered. But they have shifted, nevertheless.

Like Kani’s play, they bear the secret inscription of all that we have gained and something of what we have lost in the post-transitional moment itself.

Had I thought about it 18 years ago, I might have seen those signboards as emblematic of a desire for a redeeming closeness to working-class culture that was deeply anachronistic even then.

But the boards, and the productions that they faced, might also be read as having suggested that contiguity to working-class culture could transform consciousness; that opposing apartheid was as much a matter of recognising the class basis of oppression as it was of contesting the salience of race.

At the Market, and on far more ephemeral stages in the townships, an aesthetic of oppositional drama was enacted that sought to challenge the assumptions of the ruling party. And it often stretched the conventions of middle-class theatre in the process.

Whether in his own right, or in his collaborations with Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard, Kani is certainly no stranger to the cause of oppositional drama. And it is probably for this reason that I was disconcerted to find Janice Honeyman’s production of his current play so comfortingly predictable.

Formally, the play adheres to the orthodoxies of dramatic realism. The convention of the ‘fourth wall”, a staple of bourgeois drama, goes unchallenged. The plot is equally transparent, and revolves around the interactions between an ageing father, the consolidation of whose middle-class aspirations is betrayed at the very moment when democracy promises that they might just be realised; his dutiful daughter, primary apologist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC); and his niece, daughter of an exiled anti-apartheid activist returned to bury the father whom she has cremated in London.

But the characters must also bury jealousies, animosities, betrayals as they uncover ‘nothing but the truth” about themselves.

Kani’s play has a slight undercurrent of satire discernible in some delightfully provocative lines delivered by Esmeralda Bihl or by Kani himself. But where conflicts do surface, around gender issues for example or, tellingly, around the ideological priorities of the TRC, they are neatly resolved in a play that ultimately has everyone in this family forgiving everyone else.

There is something compelling about the resolution of family conflicts, which is why I find soapies so appealing. But the writers of soap operas remember something that Kani seems to have forgotten. Family resentments tend never to be resolved as completely as his play would like them to be.

Kani’s decision to ignore this in favour of a sentimental happy ending speaks eloquently of a longing for the integrity of the family, his family, that was disrupted — the programme notes tell us — when his brother, Xolile Kani, was shot in New Brighton in 1985.

But if this loss secretly motivates the unfolding of the play, commemoration is ill served by Kani’s deliberate retreat from the ethics and aesthetics of oppositional drama.

Loss gives way to a disturbing complacency, as middle-class as the crowds that throng Moyo’s in the theatre’s foyer when I leave. When will Kani do justice to the conflicts tamed by a work that is a little more than nostalgia, a little less than ‘truth”?

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