/ 24 April 2021

The Portfolio: Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi

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On a quest: Theatre-maker Monageng ‘Vice’ Motshabi explores the tension between prose and dramatic writing. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy)

With plays, I’m always wrestling with form. I have an innate desire to rebel against convention. I haven’t always been aware of what it is I’m looking for, but I always knew that I wanted to disrupt a certain logic; that I was looking for something outside a Western “slice of life” kind of theatre. 

I found breakthroughs when I managed to find what felt like a fresh container for a story. This desire for something new is what drives my relentless attempts at writing plays.

On Noah’s Bloodstained Rainbow We Dance was very fulfilling to me, because I seem to have found a language to express what I have been looking for. I suddenly understood what I had been chasing all along. 

I’ve always had a strong need for characters to break into monologues and to speak at length, and I didn’t understand what that need signified. Last year I found some harmony because I understood that I am trying to resolve the tension caused by my need for both prose and dramatic writing.

I’ve come across this tension when teaching and exploring the history of theatre, particularly the precolonial experience.  

When grandmother tells a story around the fire, she crisscrosses between prose and dramatic writing (intended for performance) each time she breaks from what she is relaying and goes into role play. This is why this mode of storytelling can be classified as both oral literature and performance. Since I caught on to this, I am navigating this space consciously because I understand that’s the thing that’s always been trying to explode out of me. That’s what the quest has been about.

The three main plays that have expressed that quest are Book of Rebellations, on which I collaborated with Kgafela oa Magogodi; one with Omphile Molusi, which we called Ankobia, and then a new one, On Noah’s Bloodstained Rainbow We Dance, which was adapted into a short film by the German theatre company Label Noir. 

Although it’s important to be concerned about the quality of the output and the politics of the aesthetics that govern our work, I think there are more pressing concerns for the theatre artist. The majority of people in the black community don’t consider theatre their go-to for consuming stories. There’s TV, film and the internet to contend with. And now, with Covid, we have seen the emergence of so-called online theatre. The dwindling audience numbers have shrunk even farther because it’s riskier to gather in big groups. So even if the work is really good, it’s meaningless with nobody to see it.

The more urgent concern for me as a theatre-maker is how I rebuild and answer the question of who the theatre is important to and why? If it is to occupy a meaningful place in my community, there is definitely work on my end to argue for this value and strive for others to see it as I do. 

This is no easy feat in our country, in which artists are relegated to citizens of no class by the state, unless they are praise singers of sorts. The situation at the National Arts Council and how it has been handled by the department is another reminder of the (lack of) value the state assigns to artists. So the question that I wake up to and consider when I sleep is: Is there a future for the theatre? What is it and what is my role in making it a reality?

While wrestling such questions, I’ve also been investing in my other love, publishing plays. Last week, we at diartskonageng launched our fourth book, titled Hauntings, in partnership with The Writer’s Lab. The book is an anthology of plays by four South African playwrights who happen to be women. Khutjo Green, Olivia Fischer, Jade Beeby and Refiloe Lepere. Publishing plays is important to me for three main reasons. First, I wanted to be among those who decide that a certain play is worth publishing. For too long I sat and watched while others decided for us what was worth immortalising in a book when often I disagreed with them. Second, publishing plays and making them available across the country and beyond creates more opportunities for the work to be picked up and staged by people the writer may never have come across.  And third, although plays are written to be performed, it is my contention that they are also literature and can be enjoyed like any other book.

To order your copy of Hauntings email [email protected]