What are the playmakers saying?

Seven world premieres of new South African drama will be staged at the main festival this year. Brent Meersman spoke to the artists behind some of the works

Saartjie Botha
One of Afrikaans theatre’s leading playwrights and the author of Untitled, which is on at this year’s festival

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. We live in a country with 11 official languages and people don’t understand one another and they don’t have the ability to communicate in a third or a fourth language.

People struggle to express themselves not only from language constraints, but also emotionally. Second, 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 recent xenophobic violence?
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 InniBos festival in Nelspruit [June 25 to 29] takes place the week before and the week after it’s the Volksblad-Kunstefees in Bloemfontein [July 8 to 13], which is a fantastic festival because you perform only in theatres.

However, for many Afrikaans [theatre practitioners] Grahamstown is still the festival to be seen at. I like to attend it, but not to partake.

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.

I don’t know why it is happening that Afrikaans theatre is not part of mainstream theatre in South Africa any more.

Chuma Sopotela
This young actress is 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 this year. She also won the Fleur du Cap Award for best actress this year. Chuma Sopotela performs in Untitled.

Your work is wide ranging from character roles and physical theatre to performance art. How 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 my personal development. My ultimate goal is to 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 affected by the things that happen in my society. These are personal stories that resonate with other people. My life has been a guided journey.

I know the work is Untitled, but if you had to give it 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, was adapted for the stage. Neville Engelbrecht directs.

Is African homosexuality still taboo?
Talking to the cast, yes, among their friends, the reactions they, especially for the straight guys. Some had quite heavy reactions. It is not as bad as it was, but still definitely a stigma. The cast are very brave 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 admit to being gay. He was not 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 inform him. He has to go into that underbelly world to see. In the creative arts we understand that drama draws on the suffering and that is also how the self-actualisation happens for him.

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

Biographical plays are notoriously difficult to pull off. They easily turn into lecture theatre or dramatised essays. What techniques have you employed to avoid this?

A diversity of characters speak offering different insights. I have people who are dismissive of her [Cissie Gool] legacy alongside people who put her on a pedestal. Of course the truth falls somewhere in between. How to avoid eulogising and mythologising people while celebrating their greatness. The use of tiny snippets of people speaking.

What phrase comes to mind when you think of Gool? If you had to write an epitaph to her what would it be?
Courage. “She led a rich and autonomous life.” Someone who created 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 grandfather. I had an incredible history teacher, Gail Weldon, who encouraged us to find stories. The archives were silent on Gool. So I spent time in the Cape Town archives going through newspapers and started interviewing people.

She led an uncharted 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 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 is 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”. It’s 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 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 that it’s unshakeable.

There’s a line in the play that says “she lives inside her beliefs” not next to them. She is representative of an incredibe 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 Qu’ranic injunction forbidding her to do so.

Why was her story lost for so long?
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.

Mncedisi Shabangu
A versatile director and a star performer, Mncedisi Shabangu is the co-writer and director of a mysterious new play, Ten Bush.

How did you come across this strange and wonderful story?
I was working with a community theatre group in Komatipoort. 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 dreamed 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 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.

What is it like 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 made 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 10th 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 given the task, at the beginning of the play, of lifting the curse by sacrificing her unborn daughter to appease the ancestors who still haunt Ten Bush. But Martha is barren and orders her sister to sleep with her husband instead – a decision that has consequences.

How does co-writing work? What are your roles?
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 300 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 50 years ago.

What does the festival do for you? What is your wish for the festival?
For me, it exposes our work to audiences who wouldn’t necessarily see it in their 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.

Martin Koboekae
Martin Koboekae wrote and directs 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 understand the man behind the icon who obviously, as with everybody else, had flaws. It is a social and political perspective of him.

What was your artistic ambition for this work?
As with every playwright I hope people respond well; even those vocal black consciousness movement opponents will understand that Biko never regarded himself as a politician. He was a community activist.

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 licence. I am entertaining, educating and [presenting] 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 black consciousness movement, 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 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 theatre practitioners are not given enough chance. Their artistic merit and quality is questioned.

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