The universe and poet Koleka Putuma are in negotiations

This year marks the golden anniversary of the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards. They started five decades ago, with just six categories, says Melanie Burke, chairperson of the adjudicating panel.

The showcase honours local theatre excellence; winners are chosen from productions performed at about 15 venues in Cape Town. There are 18 categories and each award carries a cash prize of R15 000, with recipients walking away with silver medallions.

This year’s ceremony takes place at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town on March 15. Chris Weare, a Fleur du Cap alumnus and actor, who received a lifetime achievement award in 2012, “will direct the awards ceremony and a unique event is planned to celebrate the successes of the past 50 years, including an entertainment line-up that will feature some of our top local artists”, according to a press statement.

See list of nominees here.

The Mail & Guardian caught up with one of the nominees, 21-year-old poet and performer Koleka Putuma, who is nominated for the Rosalie van der Gucht prize for new directors, for the production Uhm. Putuma directed the University of Cape Town production that won an award for best student theatre writer for its script at the 2014 Standard Bank Ovation awards at the National Arts Festival. Uhm is a creation by UCT’s theatre making students, who are also known as The Papercut Collective.

The production tells the story of “the English language in South Africa and how it interacts with identity”.

“We framed the narrative in a South African context: South African colonialism left a string of problems in its wake. Our nation is still in a state of questioning limbo while we try to decipher the grey areas, which lie between language, culture and race. 

And so we based our metaphor for this in language: ‘Uhm’, an expression used by humans as a pause for thought,” Putuma explains.

Performing to a new audience
The story is told through historical figures that battle over the soul of a young black woman. The historical figures include Queen Victoria (Kathleen Stephens), Cecil John Rhodes (Callum Tilbury) and Sol Plaatje (Jason Jacobs).

Not only is Putuma in line for an early birthday gift in the form of a prize – she was born on March 22 – but she’ll also perform a poem at the awards ceremony. Speaking about her upcoming performance, she told the M&G how “excited and nervous” she was. 

“My audience, where poetry is concerned, has mostly consisted of spoken word lovers/ goers, and so performing to a predominantly theatre audience will be interesting and challenging. They have a critical way of receiving and engaging with work, those theatre people.” 

But with her curriculum vitae including headlining at the SliPnets’ InZync poetry sessions, JamThatSession and at Off The Wall poetry event, she is sure to impress her peers with her talent.

The Port Elizabeth-born performer was the winner of the first national Slam for Your Life at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and South Africa’s first National Slam champion in 2014. She’s also a resident poet of spoken word collective Lingua Franca, and is studying towards a degree in theatre and performance at UCT.

What sparked your interest in poetry?
A life orientation class one summer’s day in Grade 9. We had to write a poem/ rap about HIV and Aids awareness. I gave writing rap a go and have been hooked since then.

How do you define slam poetry?
Slam poetry is not actually a genre. It’s a type of competition where people read or recite their poems without props, costumes or music. It’s mistaken to be a genre because of the type of work or voice that is trending at slams, which I have found to be a sort of beat poetry meets consciousness, meets confessional-diary-sharing, meets a lot of hand gestures and finger snaps. 

And so all of that has come to be associated with slam I think, making slam – in people’s minds – a poetry genre.

What does it take to become a great and memorable poet?
Studying constantly in which direction spoken word movement(s) are moving, then figuring out how it is you are going to learn, compete with and then diverge from the expected and usual voice or style or subject matter. 

I work very hard at updating myself as a brand and updating the sound of my work. Also shifting who I listen to, who influences me, who I draw from, just to make sure that my voice never grows stale. I don’t want people to predict the next line or poem. And if they get to the point where they can, I quickly realise that I have work to do and I get down to it.

What are some of the issues you often address in your poetry?
I write about religion and doctrine a lot. Too much actually. I also write about home and ideas of belonging. As well as about how, as a black woman, I navigate the world – and how the world navigates me.

Is it true that you dread public speaking? Where do you get the courage to stand up on stage and address the audience?
I dread public speaking when I have to speak off the top of my head or express my opinion and thoughts spontaneously, but because a lot of preparation goes into the work that I do, it just makes it easier.


Which poets do you admire?
There are quite a few. Tapiwa Mugabe, Nayyirah Waheed and The Original Strivers Row company [are all] strong and reoccurring reference points for me. Local poets include the Lingua Franca resident poets, whom I’m privileged to work with, and Jo’burg-based poet Mandi Vundla.

Do you think South Africans are paying enough attention to poetry? Do we still need to grow the craft in our country?
The business aspect of the craft needs attention and constant evaluation because the movement is growing, and the spoken-word audience too. I think the artist/ poet needs to start focusing on commodity, business exchange and sustainability.

What are some of your dreams and aspirations, career wise?
Publishing something; a novel, play, or collection of poems, is definitely something on the table. The rest people must stay plugged in for: the universe and I are still negotiating some plans.

For more on Putuma and her upcoming performances, click here.

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