Rising inflation rates and petrol prices, government corruption and ailing soccer teams. These are the themes that make news bulletins depressing.
Various productions at this year’s festival explore some of these South African realities.
Playwright Jones Chisekula penned Bliksem, is this Freedom? (not Blacksam this is Freedom? as the printers incorrectly assumed) to portray the changing face of inequality in the country.
“We have outskirts in Vryburg, where I come from, where people are not really taken care of. You have to ask yourself why.
“It is your worth in the struggle that determines now whether you live better today,” Chisekula says, then adds that he is wary of “biting the government hand that feeds him” as an artist.
“We should stop blaming white people. We have a situation currently where a black man is trying to show a white man that he can run the country better. But we should be in a situation where we can share ideas. We need to learn one another’s ways of doing things,” says Chisekula.
He believes that the arts should be a therapy in the process of defining and dealing with South African reality. “People need to re-look at themselves and laugh at the obstacles they encounter every day. It’s actually a healing process.”
Bongani Linda is impressed with the good response from the racially mixed audiences that have been to see his production, Carrot Sisters. The characters are based on the true stories of people that Linda has come across in Soweto. Those born into mixed-race relationships that ultimately didn’t work out.
“We’re tired of throwing tantrums and always blaming apartheid. Apartheid is gone,” says Linda. “I was part of the so-called klipgooiers [stone throwers] generation of the Eighties’ struggle, but the world is different now. Let our children enjoy it.”
Linda believes theatre needs to mobilise people without being didactic. “We need to understand clearly that theatre is an entertainment industry. People need to feel good but, at the same time, let’s make them think. The post-1994 struggle is no longer a political struggle. It is now a struggle for survival. So let us write about that,” says Linda.
“We try through our pens to get to a point where we agree to disagree. We need to write about our real selves, about South Africa as we see it now, particularly because there is such a big gap between the Eighties’ generation and the ‘born-free’ generation,” says Linda.
Craig Higginson’s The Perfect Circle picks up on the realities of Linda’s “born-free” generation through a group of Wits fine arts students. This group of friends goes to Dullstroom for a weekend and their relationships take unnerving tangents during this short break.
On a sub-textual level the production addresses some of the issues they face in a post-apartheid South Africa.
“There is a whole new generation of extraordinary students—black and white,” Higginson says. “Some black students are still challenged by the realities of their disadvantaged backgrounds. But there are sometimes opportunities for the black students that aren’t there for the white students.”
Higginson lectures at Wits and is also involved with the Market Theatre. “I have seen many plays by students who feel that they’re living in a country that is hostile towards them. So a lot of them are leaving.” The Perfect Circle looks at how this influences the relationships between them.
Higginson believes that theatre can gesture towards a more positive experience. He points to collaboration, like the one he has just had with fellow writer and director of the Market Theatre production Ten Bush Mncedisi Shabangu.
In Beauty and the BEE, Ben Voss plays a 50-year-old black woman. He believes that art can be a catalyst for exposing deep-seated judgmentalism that is often hidden. The South Africa depicted by Voss is corporate and through the humour there is a sense of the dullness of high society. “The one thing that has been celebrated in the past few years in our country has been money. Beauty is actually a sad character, despite her openness,” says Voss.
“Everything is not dull and horrible though. Twenty years ago there was no way that I could’ve stood up on the stage as a white guy celebrating how wonderfully well this black woman has done. There is total freedom of expression and an appreciation of all these white people for this black woman.”
Xola Mtimkulu, Zimkhitha Saliwa and Lebogang Tatedi are fresh out of high school. They started their own production company, Simply Black Productions, because they are friends who have something to say.
Their production, Mavis 4 President, is a comedy about women and empowerment.
“We don’t attack, but we do comment on what we see,” says Mtimkulu, who is studying medicine at UCT. “Amid all the fighting between political parties, like the ANC and the DA, some problems are not being solved. We’ve reached a stagnant period in our politics and our society,” says Mtimkulu.
The defining characteristic of Mavis 4 President‘s South Africa is a society in need of change. “People are disillusioned by the whole rainbow nation thing. Most people have forgotten what that means. It’s not even supported by the people who brought it about in the first place. We are 18 years old and we are seeing this. That must mean something,” says Mtimkulu.
If the state of a nation’s soul can be gauged by looking at its artistic expression, it might be said that our democracy is in the throes of a teenage identity crisis. This in itself might not be such a bad thing—good art can offer some guidance to navigate safely through what appears to be an uncertain adolescence.
Cilnette Pienaar is a post graduate student of journalism and media studies at Rhodes University. This is an edited extract from an article that first appeared in the National Arts Festival’s Cue newspaper