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Dorothy Chansky

Review of the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, South Africa

June 28-July 7, 2007

Paul Grootboom, November 04. Photo by Suzy Bernstein.

"When the white man came to Africa," says a knowing and world weary character in Mpumelelo Paul Grootbboom's sprawling new play, Interracial, "he had the bible and we had the land. Now, suddenly, we have the bible and they have the land."

That pithy observation sums up the driving force behind the six varied and vibrant shows I saw at the thirty-third annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa—the largest such event on the African continent. This year the festival offered 1,934 performances of 536 separate pieces (largely theatre, but also including opera, dance, concerts, and film) in ten days. Grahamstown, like Edinburgh, has a main festival and a Fringe. Sadly, I missed the nine other plays on my docket because a terrorist threat at Heathrow resulted in canceled flights and an unanticipated two-day layover in London. Still, the trip was worth it.

Grootboom's three-plus hour explosive meditation on racism in the "new," post-Apartheid South Africa was a mainstage offering. The play's promotional material promised a psychological thriller about a white therapist who discovers his wife is having an affair with a black man. But somewhere on the road from page to stage, the production lost its white actors, at least according to a photocopied handout.

The results included a new opening, in which the non-white company, arrayed in a semi-circle eerily reminiscent of the classic minstrel show, debated the pitfalls of blacks playing whites. Platitudes about the body being plastic and only the soul mattering in good acting led to a specific solution that had nothing to do with ocular proof or even physical skills. The actors with the most British speech would play the whites. In the beginning was the (spoken) word, more or less.

Interracial's therapist, his wife, and a burly ex-cop occupy one story, largely set in the therapist's office and home. Another story, set in a park, is anchored by a wise homeless man, his bag-lady wife, and an intellectual who attempts suicide and is rescued by the homeless sage. The stage was painted as a black-and-white checkerboard, and stools of various sizes were used in a game of chess literally played for life or death stakes. A small ensemble did protean duty as a church choir, a chorus of dancers, and a potpourri of hired murderers, prostitutes, a police investigator, a child, and others.

The connection between the two stories emerges late in the game, when we learn that the troubled therapist is a character in a screenplay being written by the homeless man (both played expertly by Mandla Gaduka). Interracial suffers from an excess of narrative, characters, and even performance strategies. (Dance as code for ethnicity is, for one, overused.) Grootboom the writer seems unable to edit his play and Grootboom the director is too smitten with experimenting with the possibilities offered by a strong cast and a compliant writer.

Right now the play can't decide whether it wouldn't rather be Intraracial nor whether it wants its controversy situated in its story or in its performance tropes. Meanwhile, ushers' warnings to whites to avoid sitting in the first three rows due to possibly offensive effects were not only unnecessary, but a red herring. The cardinal offense was lengthiness, not racial insult.

The bible may be no substitute for land, but two Fringe plays drew on Christian iconography, specifically with reference to the crucifixion and the second coming. Athol Fugard's No Good Friday (1958) occurs in the week between the arrival of an innocent country bumpkin to Sophiatown on a Friday and the galvanizing effects of his murder on the people who take him in. Director Sam Sparara Modieginyana used a small box center stage to stand for an entire township. A handful of miniature items—a clothesline, clothing, a tiny suitcase, and hand-lettered signs—did duty for a world of making do. A child's tea set occupied the play's sole female character, trapped between the rock and hard place of a beloved boyfriend and his increasing bitterness and sense of hopelessness.

Is the bumpkin a Christ figure? Interestingly, the original play had a hyphen in its title: "No-good" Friday. Here, though, the missing link suggests that there can be no Good Friday—no possibility of a meaningful sacrifice that will yield resurrection—under Apartheid. The Mohlakeng Theatre Organization's actors were a little rough around the edges, but their performances were heartfelt.

Woza Albert! asks literally what might happen if Jesus ("Morena," or "Savior") came back and showed up in Apartheid-era Cape Town. The two-hander, devised by Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema, and Barney Simon, originated in Johannesburg in 1981 and ran in New York in 1984. The 2007 actors, Morena Medi and Fikile Mahola, played an array of prisoners, laborers, and other ordinary folks interviewed about what they'd like Jesus to do for them.

The opening scene featured the duo as prisoners undergoing pre-lights-out inspection. It was played as a comic version of material made chilling in The Island (by Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona). Female audience members couldn't get enough of the young actors baring their butts for imaginary guards, and amidst hoots and clucking, the actors repeated the turn about four times. In a more sober vein, they played laborers begging for work from white passersby as the deadlines on their passbooks threatened to run out.

What, exactly, do people want from Jesus? Well, white leaders in this play want publicity for their nation. More ordinary black folk want the kind of food and houses that whites already have. The title, which means "Rise up, Albert," is used at the end, as an unrecognized Jesus visits a cemetery full of the bodies of fallen South African leaders and bids them rise again, as the struggle is far from over. The play holds few surprises, but the performers, under Fatima Dike's assured direction, were winning.

Craig Morris performs in 'Blood Orange' based on the novel by Troy Blacklaws at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 1 July 2006. Photo by CuePix/Laura Cooke.

Like any good Fringe festival, this one had its share of one-person shows. Blood Orange was performed by Craig Morris and devised by Morris, director Greig Coetzee, and novelist Troy Blacklaws, whose book of the same name (published in 2005) provided the source material.

The piece is the coming-of-age story of Gecko, an African Anglo growing up in Zululand, happy but put-upon, in the 1970s. His imagination is the source of his being teased, and Morris figured much of his character's sensitivity and cock-eyed optimism through lithe physicality. A few tires became cars, desks, roads, a bed, drums, and at one point, a woman's body. Have wheels, will travel. Gecko is punished for thinking about politics in secondary school. Later, he goes AWOL after being drafted, when his kneejerk liberalism gives temporary way to wanderlust and ordinary lust. In the end, he returns to his country, ready to fight against its injustices and for its multiplicities.

Voetsek! takes a different look at Africa under and just after colonialism. Andrew Buckland's solo piece shows blacks taking advantage of each other and scrambling to adjust to shifting power alliances simply in order to get enough to eat.

Buckland is not alone onstage in this piece, however. An amazing, lifesize puppet is the first character we meet. When Buckland pokes his (white) head out from around the torso he is manipulating to enter into dialogue with the painted-faced, lumpy-bodied, ex-dancer and now food-bank operator he holds, his presence in his own right comes as a shock. The ex-dancer has survived past regimes, and she will survive whatever comes. Not so Buckland as human. In a final trek that reverses the terms of power, it is the puppet who is carrying the human on her back, ferrying him to safety as he panics, barks orders, and imagines himself able to survive on ego alone.

A third character is a radio announcer, presented intermittently as a mask atop Buckland's right hand. It is this character who helps his people adjust to political changes, erasing the past as he goes, and hyping songs with spin like, "dig it Mama—dig it like a mass grave." When yesterday's hero becomes today's criminal, the radio keeps citizens (mis)informed.

The surprise hit of my too-brief Fringe experience was Aunt Rose, directed by Zmuxolo Mgoduka and featuring music by a group called Uphondo Lwe Afrika. Billed as the story of an activist abused for her gender as well as her politics, the piece was far more than a story with music and dance. Set in Port Elizabeth, the loose narrative covers the years between 1965 and 2006. Aunt Rose is a kind of earth mother with nerves of steel who relives her past and faces death. Jailed in her youth for a murder she didn't commit, she was mistaken for a political prisoner and housed with the real thing. These activists provided her with what she calls her university education.

The result? A mama who is proud of her ancestors, proud of her cross-dressing adult son (he's not carjacking or doing drugs, so what's the problem?), and not too proud to earn money via menial work. An ensemble of ten athletic, joyous youngsters offered modern, kwela, and African-fusion dance, as they provided a tour of nightclubs, the spirit world, the street, and Rose's youth. A black comedy riff towards the end of the piece reinforces the lesson Rose has learned: Africans working against each other because of nationalist or tribal agendas is the equivalent of prostituting family members or colluding with colonists. And "mere" profit-making isn't a justifiable reason for exploitation, either.

Grahamstown is a trek for Americans or Europeans, but the plays were rewarding and, with the current exchange rate, the ticket prices were almost as cheap as staying home and renting DVDs. Renewed commitments for festival support on the part of the South African government and the festival's sponsor are linked to approval of the increasingly pan-ethnic offerings. While all the plays I saw were in English, audiences who knew Xhosa and Zulu got jokes and references that I didn't. Which is, of course, part of the point.

--Dorothy Chansky



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