In this special three-part series, Aphra Behn from Guerilla Girls On Tour reports on the recent Women Playwrights International Conference in Cape Town, South Africa.
Mwenya Kabwe’s Keynote Address
Starting us off on Monday morning with the first keynote address was Mwenya Kabwe, a Zambian theatremaker and performer “with an afripolitan approach to her work.” Mwenya’s recent piece Afrocartography: Traces of Places and All Points In Between is an interdisciplinary performance that questions how one can be Afripolitan in the world.
The first thing I noticed in Mwenya’s passionate speech was the term “theatremaker.” Mwenya kept referring to herself and her colleagues as theatremakers. This best describes what South African theatre artists do: they make theatre by devising, directing, choreographing, and producing. They do not script plays; therefore, the tradition of writing plays and only writing plays is relatively new in South Africa. In fact, drama students at the University of Cape Town have the option to concentrate on two tracks: theatremaking or acting. With the help of Google, I discovered that countries in the UK also use the term theatremaker. I began to think about why the US uses such traditional, segmented titles like director, designer, and playwright. Perhaps it has to do with our need to define authorship and ownership of a work as well as our tradition of labeling the hierarchy within a theatre production.
As Mwenya continued to share her experience mentoring a group of black female directing students, she prefaced her words by explaining that there are more female directors than playwrights in South Africa. Perhaps they fit into the category of theatremakers easier than writers do. She asked her students to create short pieces of political theatre and was astounded by the diversity of ideas that resulted. One student created a play about black hair. Another student created a play about identity and migration. A third portrayed a love story, which got Mwenya thinking about how rare it is to see a love story between two black people on the stage. She went on to conclude that theatremaking creates an environment whereby ideas could naturally attract each other and shape themselves into a story. Mwenya said, “I think that theatre is about creating a space so that other people can explore their own ideas.”
Mwenya ended by describing her piece Afrocartography, which asks: “What does it truly mean to be without our sense of identity? How do we build a sense of belonging?” Her characters are Traveller, Mapmaker, Afropolitan, and Afrosettler, who take the audience on a journey to an in-between realm where dreaming, waking, memory, and imagination overlap.
Afrocartography seems impossible to script like a traditional play. Mwenya is challenged with the problem of how to transfer her work onto paper. She questions, “How do we translate plays that are not scripted?” This question resonated throughout the rest of the conference. In fact, a group of us sat together at lunch to informally continue this discussion. The conference content inspired many spontaneous breakout sessions where a few of us gathered for breakfast, coffee, or pre-dinner drinks to share ideas.
Small World Story Break
There is someone here I think I know. She looked so familiar to me and every time I passed her, she looked at me like she knew me as well. I finally got the opportunity to introduce myself.
Me: Hello. I’m Aphra. I think I know you.
Mumbi: Everyone is saying that to me. I’m Mumbi Kaigwa from Kenya.
Me: I’m from New York. How do I know you?
Mumbi: I was in New York just once. In 2009, I performed in Mo Faya at the New York Musical Theatre Festival.
Me: I saw that show! That’s how I know you. You were fantastic!
Mo Faya was an amazing musical theatre experience. Who knew that I would meet one of the cast members six years later in Cape Town? And it turned out that Mumbi Kaigwa was cast in the reading of Guerrilla Girls On Tour’s If You can Stand the Heat at the conference.
South African Theatre Panel
I began to get a clearer sense of the tradition of theatre for women in South Africa from playwright Fatima Dike and directors Warona Seane and Caroline Claburn, who were panelists on the South African Theatre discussion. The oral tradition of storytelling dominates modern South African theatre. When I think of storytellers, I think of performers not playwrights. Thus, a storyteller could be categorized as more of a theatremaker.
South African women in theatre in have much in common with women in theatre in the rest of the world. They are not published or produced as much as men are. Yet, they break new ground by creating their own theatre companies and staging their own work. However, several women do not choose to be playwrights in South Africa, they choose to be directors, or theatremakers instead. They often take on all the work involved of creating a performance, or they form collaborations to mount a single production.
Today, much of South African theatre originates from protest theatre during apartheid, which was largely led by men. Fatima Dike described being mentored during apartheid by some of these men. Thus, she found it difficult to think of herself as the leader of a theatre production because she, and other women as well, were not used to being bosses.
Young contemporary South African women playwrights are gravitating more towards spoken word because it is easier and cheaper to produce. Plays in South Africa tend to be work shopped rather than written or published. Again, I heard this concern of how to capture and record South African performances and plays that are often interdisciplinary and non-text-based. This is a major reason why South African plays are not widely published. The panelists concluded with urgency for the women in the conference to consider recording more of their work. They felt that if more plays by women were scripted, people might take them more seriously.
The panelists also agreed that there is a lot of exciting work coming out of young black theatremakers today. Yet, they lamented the fact that this work has not found a way into the mainstream. I wonder how many women playwrights in the US face this dilemma of scripting their work. I think the venue and space constraints theatremakers face in New York City is why there are fewer interdisciplinary works there. Lastly, is publishing the best way to get plays by women in the United States into the mainstream?