If Mike van Graan, Aubrey Sekhabi, Janice Honeyman and John Kani have something in common, it’s in how their current productions submerge the ordinary person in the swirling tide of South Africa’s history.
In their various ways these storytellers not only uncover the individual within the amorphous mass, they also give him a distinct, memorable personality that makes us recognise the agency of ordinary people in the great events of history. In this way they help us interrogate our understanding of mainstream narratives.
Van Graan’s Brothers in Blood opened at the Market Theatre this week. It’s a play set in Cape Town circa 1998 at the time that activists for the People against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) were at their most active. The play explores the tension that existed among the Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities of Cape Town.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian at the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg, Van Graan said the action of the play takes place against a backdrop of deep unease and mutual suspicion. “There was a lot of tension between the religious groups. At that time there was a lot of stereotypying,” he said.
Abubaker Abrahams, a coloured principal at a Cape Town school, lost his wife and grandchild to gun violence and, to make a break with the violence of his community, intends to move away from his neighbourhood to a safer place, in this case a predominantly Jewish suburb.
It’s a neighbourhood that, coincidentally, his parents were forcibly removed from decades back. In the greater global context the reality of his move reflects the politics of the Middle East.
“If people are anxious, or fearful, it’s our role as artists to explore, to grapple with issues so that there’s a degree of collective catharsis,” Van Graan said. In this way he believes that real people don’t have to discuss their frustrations in the privacy of the bedroom or with their friends behind closed doors - they can participate in theatre as part of a communal discussion.
Van Graan said that since the end of the Cold War the great divides in the world are mainly cultural and economic. He said the various cultures are not in dialogue, they barely venture from the originating foundation: “Everyone has their own truth. This is what is challenged in this play. If you claim to have the truth how do you relate to the other?”
Van Graan said the current dispensation, which author Mark Gevisser has termed the “second transition”, is “an exciting one” for it provides the opportunities to “ask the hard questions”. He argues that “democracy is never ever won. No country ever becomes a democracy; you are constantly fighting to become a democracy.” Those in power, he said, have an interest in undermining the input of the majority in how society should function.
At the State Theatre in Pretoria, artistic director Sekhabi’s real triumph may be in bringing new audiences to the theatre. What’s going on in Pretoria is perhaps the fullest expression of the phrase “community theatre”. On the day I went there I saw old men and women, the likes of whom I have never seen in the foyers of South Africa’s theatres before. “Some of the people who are coming have never been to the theatre before,” Sekhabi said about the audiences streaming to watch Mantolo: The Tenth Step. The production is about Sibusiso Senele “Mantolo” Masuku, an MK veteran sentenced in the late Eighties to hang for the murder of a policeman. It was co-written by Sekhabi and Mantolo himself and is based on actual events. In his programme notes, Sekhabi writes that he visited some of the places at which Mantolo carried out missions and asked him to relive his experiences on death row.
The action of the play is visceral, its mood plaintive, its sense of movement unrelenting. At around two hours, perhaps there is a case to be made that it’s too long - that it could have been tightened and had fewer gallows sequences. I guess I am rather sensitive and so I could watch only one of the hanging scenes. But the production doesn’t leave you indifferent. After every performance Mantolo, Sekhabi and the cast field questions from the audience about the production. I found touching an incident in which a teenage girl in the audience asked to be hugged by Mantolo. Her joy at touching and feeling the man who, in a way, rose from the dead was palpable.
In Newtown Nothing but the Truth is now in its seventh year, currently showing at the Market Theatre. The production by Honeyman features Kani as Sipho Makhaya, an ageing librarian who has plodded through life in the shadow of his struggle-hero brother. The brother has died and his cremated remains now lie in a canister on the mantelpiece. It’s time for Makhaya to take a look inside his wounded soul.
Now a national setwork, the play’s place in the new canon is not in dispute. But some critics have questioned the political correctness of portraying struggle heroes, in this case the deceased Themba, as womanisers. But Kani said his play is inspired by his own late brother, Xolile. He said as he was writing the play, coming to terms with his loss, the story took its own turn and suddenly it became a story about two brothers. He said his idea of telling a story can be likened to “pulling someone from the crowd” and letting that person tell their story.
Kani said his play is about a specific family: “I didn’t write a political drama, it’s a family drama, the politics is in the background.” In terms that suggest the need for the artist to be distrustful of mainstream interpretations of history, Kani said “an artist needs to go far left and far right to come to the centre”. He is not “bound by the politics of the day. My passion is for freedom.”
Kani is adamant that he begins a story with an individual, “that person standing at the street corner. The big issues, the conflict, the big debates will come out.”
He is encouraged that finally “artists are finding their voices, telling stories that complement our democracy”.
And complementing South Africa’s democracy doesn’t mean corroborating the nationalist narrative. For writers this means being on the alert, always posing the difficult questions and being distrustful (not necessarily adversarially) of power in all its guises.
Brothers in Blood opens at the Market Theatre on May 28; Mantolo: The Tenth Step runs until June 21 at the State Theatre in Pretoria; Nothing but the Truth runs at the Market Theatre until June 14