Festive free-for-alls

Open-air theatre in Grahamstown. (Suzy Bernstein)

Open-air theatre in Grahamstown. (Suzy Bernstein)

As I watched Ancestors, a free show involving French artists and South African actors, Michael Sandel’s fascinating book What Money Can't Buy was at the back of my mind.

The book, an eloquent diatribe against a world in which everything is up for sale, bemoans the lack of “serious debate about the role and reach of markets … from our political life."

In the United States, nonviolent cellmates can upgrade their cells if they pay a fee. One can drive solo in car pool lanes if one is willing to pay for the privilege. If you don’t want to queue for something, you can pay homeless people to stand in the queue on your behalf.

In 2010, the city of New York’s public theatre programme featured Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino.

Sandel explains how this initiative failed.
“Many New Yorkers were eager to see the play but didn’t have time to stand in line. This predicament gave rise to a cottage industry-people offering to wait in line to secure tickets for those willing to pay for the convenience”. 

In the end, what was supposed to be a free concert ended up costing $125 (R1 500) a ticket.

We didn’t have to pay a cent to watch  Ancestors, a production that features animated sculptures, staged in the open on the grounds of Rhodes University. The production features  mostly local residents, some of them not professional actors, who try to bring to life the South Africa’s bloody history of conquest, the rituals of African marriage and the migrant labour system.

Although the production could have been tighter and shorter, the idea of getting local actors to collaborate with overseas artists is something we should see more often.

As scores of people watched this production, an older citizen, a local, possibly tipsy, kept on interrupting the show by shouting whatever choice nuggets of thought that came to his mind. Some in the audience, riled, moved to lead him away from his seat … oops … from the lawns, but he shouted, with defiance and a sense of ownership, “Ndize kufestival!” (I have come to the festival).

The Grahamstonian said something that could be echoed by the thousands of well-to-do people who have descended on this sleepy town.

Ancestors is part of the French season, brought to National Arts Festival by the Institut Francais.

Percy Zvomuya

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