Theatre forms an integral part of the cultural landscape of South Africa. Before the present day, before democracy, before apartheid, before 1912, before 1652, theatre has been used as a mechanism of storytelling in our lands, and storytellers have achieved high status in our cultures and subcultures.
Cape Town-born theatre-maker Ameera Conrad has emerged in recent years as yet another incredible storyteller in that long line.
With a bachelor degree in theatre and performance, with a focus on theatre-making from the University of Cape Town (UCT), she reminisces about a particular moment that pushed her towards a career on stage.
“I was on my way to becoming an engineer or going into commerce, but, in grade 11, I performed in the Shakespeare Schools Festival South Africa,” says Conrad. “We did a 30-minute rendition of Macbeth and Chris Weare, [who was an associate processor in the department of drama and] director [of the Little Arts theatre] at UCT at the time, encouraged me to consider a career in the arts. I’m constantly amazed by how supportive my parents and the rest of my family have been.”
In 2015, as she entered the final year of her degree, universities across the country erupted in protests about fee increases, access and institutional culture and, as if torn from the pages of history, the space became ripe for the ancient tradition of storytelling.
At UCT’s first open assembly during the #RhodesMustFall movement — a space where students, staff and then outsourced workers could speak about their experience at the university — Conrad was the first to speak and read her poem On Exhaustion Over a Lack of Understanding. Once complete she sealed her mouth with tape on which was written “LET ME CRY” and held her fist up. At the end of 2015 she graduated cum laude.
Thereafter, she hit the ground running by writing, directing, acting in and stage managing plays. In the two years she’s been working, she’s been intimately involved with 10 local productions in various capacities.
The Fall stands out as an incredible piece of work which she co-wrote and performs in. Having sold out in Jo’burg and Cape Town, it featured at the International Edinburgh Fringe Festival, winning The Stage Edinburgh Cast Award and The Scotsman Fringe First Award, and is currently showing in New York for a month.
The experience of marginalised bodies, as well as the context of the nation and her position in it as a young person of colour, forms a central part of Conrad’s creative process.
“I’ve found that the only reason I’m managing to make it work is because I’m really being my true authentic self in my work, and in the way that I present myself to people,” she says.
Reparation, A play she wrote and directed, grapples with the concept of justice and reconciliation in a jarring yet refreshing way. In the play, one white person is chosen as a sacrifice to atone for all the sins of white people against people of colour in the past. Intimately set in a church hall, the play personalised concerns of retribution, historical trauma and responsibility.
“My primary focus is stories about people of colour. People say my work is very political but I also think it’s just work that wants to unpack this thing of being a person of colour —the hardships and the joys that come with it,” she says.
There’s no shortage of accolades for her work. Conrad was recently honoured by the Western Cape government with the award for Cultural Affairs Best Contribution to the Performing Arts: Drama.
In 2017, she was invited by the Lincoln Theatre Director’s Lab in New York as part of 60 directors from around the world to share their work, expertise and learn from one another. And two of her works, The Fall and Reparation, have been published.
“I’m on track to develop two new plays this year, in between touring with The Fall. I’ve highkey got a few new tricks up my sleeve that I’m really excited about but can’t quite talk about just yet … but watch this space. And follow me on Twitter and Instagram; I’m trying to get verified,” says Conrad.
Even though the nature of theatre has changed through the years —from its history as a form of protest during the struggle to having to adapt to a world that whizzes by with the hyper consumerism of film and pop culture — Conrad has remained true to her craft but intuitively open to adaptation.