Although the National Arts Festival is too gargantuan a terrain for a lone explorer to wrap his feet around, interpretations of this year’s theme of “disruption” abound whichever way one may turn. Nadia Davids’s What Remains, a play directed by Jay Pather, fits neatly into the above theme, looking at a grim archaeological discovery as the site of a contest between “memory and history”.
What Remains first began as a possible novella, based loosely on the 2003 discovery of a grave site at Prestwich Place in Cape Town. The site turned out to be one of the largest slave burial grounds to be unearthed in the southern hemisphere, having housed close to 3 000 bodies.
In her treatment of the story, Davids moves away from a specific setting, opting for a more generalised Cape Town, which in turn becomes a metaphor for where South Africa finds itself today. The characters in the play are archetypes, with Faniswa Yisa playing the archaeologist, Denise Newman playing both the healer and the chair of a development consortium, and Buhle Ngaba playing the student. Shaun Oelf, a dancer, provides a ghoulish presence symbolic of the uncovered bones.
As a production, What Remains is sleek, atmospheric and briskly paced. Much of the pacing has to do with Ngaba’s unrelenting energy as the student. Ngaba’s role, which evolved from being a narrator, sees her as the connective tissue in the story. She spews out facts and hypotheses and analyses the unfolding drama as a witness to history unwilling to be contained by the sidelines.
Ngaba is a great conduit for the tension that drives Davids’s story. Newman, too, by playing roles that represent polar opposites (a capitalist developer and the healer visited by the spirits of the dead), enhances the production’s kinetic drive.
It is perhaps all this brilliance at hand that gives the impression that What Remains functions more on an intellectual level than on an emotive one. I struggled with this feeling for hours, even speaking to Davids about the very idea of complicity, a thread brought up by Pather’s seating layout, which sees audiences face each other as they watch the play.
“Isn’t this how ordinary people feel, on some level?” she asked. “That we are watching things unfold and unravel before us and it’s hard to get a grip around them, to decide how one acts in different moments. What does one do? […] All our positions involve complicity in different ways at different times.”
Perhaps this is the crux of the discomfort generated by What Remains.
Songs of mayhem and blood
To an enthusiastic, attentive crowd at the Thomas Pringle Hall on Saturday evening, 2017 National Arts Festival featured artist Neo Muyanga shared an illuminating anecdote a few minutes into the set of Solid(T)Ary, his exploration of struggle histories through song.
The stage production crew, wanting to know what mood to evoke with the lights, asked him what the show was about. “I told them it was an intensely dark show about mayhem and murder but played as romance,” he said.
The crowd and Muyanga chuckled at this in unison, for there was a collective understanding of what Muyanga meant. All songs of struggle are, in fact, love songs. At points, it seemed that this was all Muyanga wanted to us to contemplate; that however disparate the means and however far apart the locales might be, all people struggle out of a deep sense of love, a love whose connections Muyanga exposed with a delicate originality, first on the piano and then, standing, on the acoustic guitar.
There was a sense of the artist becoming the songs as he sang them; and a sense that these were compositions, yes, but each individual singer of this collective canon has, over the decades, made these songs new each time. For instance, what does it mean for Muyanga to sing of Biko and Sisulu in the same breath as he mentions Umkhonto we Sizwe (“uBiko uthi ayihlome ihlasele”) or to sing songs from the Himalaya mountains with an undertow of Bhaca guitar playing?
The most poignant question, however, came from the artist himself. “What does it mean that some of these songs are 5 000 years old, and still we haven’t learnt anything?”