In the broader mythology of the entertainment industry, there’s a general consensus that young, out of work actors make reluctantly good waiters.
Yet the fact that being a waiter in South Africa is part of an old system of subservience and racial discrimination somewhat detracts from the romanticised notion of a youngster bravely carrying plates until his, or her, ship of fortune docks.
In the old days of apartheid, young black South Africans could rise only to the status of waiters at whites-only restaurants, regardless of ambition, talent or good looks. The rare exception got famous and then left the country on a one-way pass.
That was until the late 1980s when the likes of director Mbongeni Ngema took dozens of youths out of the township and into the big wide world in productions like Sarafina, and Asinamali.
Cut to 2013. In the sharp winter sunlight, on Newtown’s Mary Fitzgerald Square, I was bidding farewell to the cast of a new production of Asinamali, having watched a rehearsal in preparation for the National Arts Festival. As I turned to say goodbye to one of the young actors, I saw him jump into a shiny, silver Peugeot 207 and speed away.
Times have changed. Granted, the car may not have been the most expensive, but one has to remember that under the previous dispensation the majority of black actors rehearsed and performed after hours, having completed what was probably a long day of menial work.
They could only dream of speeding away to the suburbs in a fancy French car. In all probability, it was not only deprivation of basics but also the deprivation of luxury that added to the fervour of the culture produced.
When we saw Asinamali at the Market Theatre in 1988, with its tragic but humorous edge, nobody would have believed that someday we would see the play in retrospect, and that it would look like a quaint relic of a dark age.
The director of the latest production of the classic protest black comedy is Prince Lamla, winner of this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist award for drama.
Affable and soft spoken, 31-year-old Lamla is responsible for restaging two key anti-apartheid texts that Ngema created in a workshop setting in the 1980s: Woza Albert, which is about the hypothetical return of Jesus under apartheid and, now, the ensemble prison piece Asinamali.
Writing about the play at the time of its Broadway debut in 1987, New York Times critic Jeremy Gerard described it as a play in which “five actors, all portraying political prisoners, tell stories of life in the townships and the circumstances — joyful as well as terrifying — that have landed them in jail.
“Using only the merest suggestions of setting, Asinamali (the title means, ‘We have no money’) relies on music, dance, choral recitation and old-fashioned storytelling to give a searing account of life in a segregated society.”
Asked about the difference in contexts, between then and now, Lamla says: “I’m more interested in the human story and human element in it, with some of the challenges we face today. I’m not looking at it as an apartheid story. I’m looking at it from the perspective of the people.
“For example, now, I think people are imprisoned within themselves in their own bodies. They’re not really letting go, or expressing themselves enough, not assertive enough to go for what they want in life, even with basic things.
“Those challenges I think still imprison them in their minds.”
This metaphorical prison described by Lamla may help us to bridge time zones between the apartheid then and the post-apartheid now, but the original context of the play needs revisiting in order to understand the overwhelming anger that gave rise to a humour that was cutting and macabre.
At the height of the rent boycotts of the 1980s, in Durban’s oldest township of Lamontville, a community leader called Msizi Dube rose up and launched a campaign under the slogan Asinamali. Dube was shot by unknown assassins in Lamontville in 1983. The play, which was first performed in that province a few years later, shows how the prisoners portrayed were all connected to Dube in some way.
But Lamla points out that at the end of the work: “We remember the fallen heroes, the icons we wish to have now.
“In government today, we have strong leaders, but there are too few. There’s a vacuum.”
Recent service delivery protests have shown us that, on the periphery, there is a public still performing its outrage, adding relevance to the play. In the heat of Asinamali, a character called Boy (played by Ngema’s brother of the same name, who now functions as musical director of the new production) proclaims: “It’s not about the vote, look for it deep inside your heart.”
Asked about what he hopes people visiting the National Arts Festival will take away with them when they watch Asinamali, Lamla says: “I hope people will look deep inside their hearts, like Boy says, and ask, ‘Who am I in this new South Africa, and what am I doing in it?’
“What are you doing to better your own country? It starts in your own home with your family. When you change your home, you can change the country.”