Debate: 40 years of theatre in South Africa

Dr Megan Lewis and Dr Samuel Ravengai continue the conversation with attendants after the discussion.
Dr Megan Lewis and Dr Samuel Ravengai (with Albie Sachs) continue the conversation with attendants after the discussion.

The four panellists had their work cut out for them covering the transformative and explosive past 40 years of South African theatre. Marcia Blumberg of York University, Canada, focused on the impact of the TRC on SA theatre. A fast-paced recap of the TRC reminded us how it was the first commission of its kind and that “there was no map.” Blumberg recalled the memorable quote of Albie Sachs: “Judges don’t cry. Tutu cried.” Though the TRC was walking through uncharted ground, it has served to become a model for the rest of the world and planted the seed for other such commissions.

She singled out Ubu and the Truth Commission as a powerful enactment of the TRC. First performed here in Grahamstown at the 1997 National Arts Festival, with William Kentridge being one of the past 30 years’ talented Sasol winners, it is a treat to have the play again at this year’s festival. She reminded us how people walked out of initial performances, so strong was the reaction to a play which refused to idealise the TRC, shattering the ideal of unrealistic perfection people wanted to see from the TRC. The play is once again being performed this year and is sure to meet expectations with the masterful puppetry and moving verbatim testimonies. Blumberg singled out the works of Yale Faber, Craig Higginson and Phillip Miller, recognising the importance and power of art and theatrical enactments to contribute to a healing nation, regardless how volatile the political situation may be.

This was furthered by Heike Gehring (Rhodes University), speaking of the special power of physical theatre in transcending the boundaries and many language barriers which divide us – not just here in South Africa but across the world. Physical theatre has thus allowed for the rehearsal space to become a “laboratory” – a place of experimentation and discovery where the body is acknowledged as ones primary means of communication. The space provided is hence one in which diversity and individuality are celebrated, and the resultant interpretations and performance styles are as varied as the individuals creating them. She highlighted the masterful physical theatre work of Gary Gordon and Andrew Buckland, which uniquely articulate and communicate our concerns in the here and now in a different and accessible way.

Megan Lewis (University of Massachusetts, USA) provided a broad-spectrum view of the National Arts Festival and the function it serves as an “umbilicus” of the arts on a global scale, as many shows travel from here to other festivals around the world. Athol Fugard was singled out as an exceptional South African writer who has an enormous influence and audience in America. Lewis stirred the patriarchal pot on this 4th of July, pointing out how it is far easier for Americans to see South Africa’s racism through Fugard’s plays than acknowledge it in their own society. Lewis got the brain ticking, questioning whose responsibility is it to convey the subtleties of a culture when performing in another country and challenging the stereotypical kind of performances that tend to sell to and be enjoyed by the overseas market and encouraged the need to see the “other” perspective, the “person of colour’s perspective” from South African theatre.

Samuel Ravengai (University of the Witwatersrand) noted the difficulty in this however, partially due to a paranoia and stigma that authentically South African theatre means gumboot dancing, drumming, naked girls and unintelligible shouts disrupting the refined traditions of Shakespeare and classic theatre. Because of decisions made during Apartheid, only 1 of South Africa’s 50 theatres is located in a ‘black area’, namely Soweto, thus the vast majority of the population does not have access or exposure to forms of ‘traditional’ theatre. This highlights the potential and importance of the medium of physical theatre, which allows the transcendence of language barriers. In our country of 11 official languages, the benefits and potential of this is spectacular. The debate continues around South African physical theatre and what it is. Perhaps for now it must remain distinctly elusive. As Ravengai noted, it is “easier to create distinctly South African music than distinctly South African theatre.”

One Comment Add yours

  1. Timothy Katerere says:

    A very enlighting article, amateur productions are killing the Zim industry, anyone who finds him or herself unemployed thinks he or she can an (artist) yet it requires more knowledge than skill to be appreciated commercially. Thanks to DR. Ravengai with this article that shows that art is not mere dancing or making wild renditions of reality and unintelligible shouting etc

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