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Past, Present, and Future Collide

The 40th Annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa

Anniversaries are peculiar things. They’re a mix of celebration and introspection. Marking them often entails reflecting on the past, taking stock of the present, and looking ahead to the future. The 40th anniversary of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa (July 3-13, 2014) was characterized by this collision of past, present, and future.

It makes sense that questions of legacy and history were central to much of the 2014 festival program. Nelson Mandela’s death in December 2013 and the April 2014 celebration of the twentieth anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections have prompted a reflective turn in the nation’s public and cultural life.

Multiple theatrical release posters
Posters for the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa. Photo by Louis Feiter. 

Billed as “10 days of amazing,” the National Arts Festival was established in 1974 to celebrate the work of Shakespeare, though it has since broadened considerably and now includes work in several of South Africa’s eleven official languages. The largest festival of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, this year it boasted more than 2,800 performances, which made up both a main stage and fringe program. The festival included theater, dance, jazz, music, film, performance art, comedy, public art, and student theater, in addition to an impressive lecture series called Think!Fest and an expansive craft fair in the center of town.


The largest festival of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, this year it boasted more than 2,800 performances, which made up both a main stage and fringe program.


Since this was my first year at the festival, I set an ambitious schedule and saw twenty-five plays, three lectures, two dance pieces, and one film. As a dramaturg I’m obsessed with the ways people tell stories on stage, so I devoted most of my festival-going energy to theater. As such, it must be noted that my perspective leaves out many of the other exceptional performances the festival offered.

The work I did witness at the festival reckoned with divergent and diverse political, cultural, and aesthetic legacies. Some artists engaged with the past and told well-worn narratives in new ways. Others shone a bright light on South Africa’s present political context, where an often-uncritical view of past struggle is sometimes favored over a questioning lens. Still other artists looked to the future, imagined new possibilities, and debated the efficacy of hope.

Ambitious Offerings from the South African State Theatre
While marred by uneven technical elements, the two offerings produced by the South African State Theatre were promising pieces, ambitious and direct in their engagement with political legacies and unabashedly contemporary in their subject matter.

Marikana – The Musical dramatized the tragic events of August 16, 2012, when South African police shot down thirty-four striking mineworkers. Adapted and directed by Aubrey Sekhabi, the State Theatre’s artistic director, Marikana – The Musical presented an unsurprising, though occasionally affecting, retelling of an event that remains current thanks to an ongoing, highly-publicized government investigation. Sekhabi took pains to show both sides of the story, though this meant that, at times, the piece lapsed into broad, generalized characterization. Actual protest songs and the staging of a powerful initiation ritual, however, were inspired additions that established a clear sense of community in this story about solidarity and betrayal.

many actors on stage
The cast of Marikana – The Musical on stage. Photo by Val Adamson

Protest, written and directed by the polarizing Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom, is set in a fictional township where peaceful attempts at protest have fallen on deaf ears. The mood becomes violent when a self-serving municipal worker attempts to use the township’s frustration to further his political ambitions. A stylistic departure from Grootboom’s other work, which garnered him the nickname “township Tarantino,” Protest is a didactic fable that explores the intersections of violence and protest in a deliberately broad, “community theater” style. While the play suggests a hopeful vision of the future, its cynical ending clouds a way forward—ultimately, the status quo of corruption and intimidation remain unchanged. Perhaps this ending is deliberate, showing that old modes of protest no longer produce meaningful change; advocating for people to be activists within their specific communities.

Taking Stock of the “Rainbow Nation”
Similarly to the State Theatre’s offerings, Mike van Graan’s Return of the Ancestors (produced by Artscape Theatre Centre) depicted South Africa’s democratic dream warped and abused by power and money. Taking his inspiration from Woza Albert (a satirical two-hander from 1981 about Jesus Christ’s return to apartheid South Africa), van Graan imagines what would happen if Steve Biko and Neil Agget—martyrs of the anti-apartheid struggle—were sent to check up on South Africa’s twenty-five-year-old democracy.

Through a series of ruthlessly paced comic vignettes peppered with puns and word play, van Graan dissects a multitude of current attitudes about president Jacob Zuma, the African National Congress, the commodification of the anti-apartheid struggle, xenophobia, and neocolonialism, amongst others. Performed with infectious energy and virtuosic timing by Siya Sikawuti and Mandisi Sindo, each vignette ends with a sharp, unsettling insight into the current state of South Africa’s democracy.

Adapting South Africa
Other works at the festival engaged political and aesthetic legacies by adapting classic plays from the western canon to a South African context.

Multiple actors on stage
Oedipus @ Koö-Nú!. Photo  by Val Adamson. 

With a cheeky reference to Mandela’s birthplace, Qunu, in the title, Standard Bank Young Artist Greg Homann’s ambitious Oedipus @ Koö-Nú! relocates Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus to an allegorical post-1994 South Africa: a wasteland of old newspaper and abandoned toilets. Meta-theatrical, zany, and more than a little ridiculous, Oedipus @ Koö-nú! uses the ancient story of an old man reckoning with the past to examine how a South Africa so shaped by Mandela can move forward after his death. The play ends where it began—with a black man and a white man handcuffed together—and while the cyclical structure suggests that something must be done to break the pattern of South Africa’s current political complacency, the sting of Homann’s satire gets lost in the exuberance of his broad, messy play.

Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer’s brisk ninety minute adaptation of Desire Under the Elms also focused on the past, setting Eugene O’Neill’s play in the eastern cape following the arrival of English settlers in 1820 and the Xhosa cattle killing crisis of 1856-1857. O’Neill’s play fits surprisingly well in this context, as each character’s desire for ownership of the land becomes all the more urgent and charged in an atmosphere of colonialism and displacement. While the adaptation does a disservice to the character of Abby Putnam by having her fall too quickly in love with the young Eben Cabot, Abrahamse and Meyer show that the roots of the current land rights conflict run deep into South Africa’s colonial past.

Lone Voices and Complex Identities
The 2014 festival also saw the return of solo performance on the main stage, as well as a spate of one-handers on the fringe. These plays—some fictional, others based on the performer’s life story—focused on answering the seemingly simple question: “Who am I?” Notably, two productions tackled the fraught category of white masculinity in differing ways.

Set in a parking lot overlooking Grahamstown, Brian Notcutt’s Waiting For This God Ou chronicles the unremarkable life of Brandon de Wet, a white, middle-aged, middle-class ou (Afrikaans slang for “bloke”). Deliberately invoking Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece, the play turns de Wet into a tragic symbol of white South African masculinity. Ambivalent and hopeless, de Wet resorts to suicide, a last act that is both liberating and troubling in its implications.

Taking a different approach to the same theme, Wessel Pretorius’ Undone (translated from the Afrikaans original) tells the story of “Boy,” who struggles to define himself apart from the religious conservatism and emotional repression of his Afrikaner upbringing. Fusing Afrikaans poetry, lyrical attention to the everyday, and a haunting, dancerly physicality, Pretorius’ performance testifies to Boy’s undoing of powerful legacies that have warped previous generations of Afrikaner men.

Solo-shows Salaam Stories, Original Skin, and Cheaper Than Roses were revivals of successful productions from past years. While different in style, all three productions focused on traditionally underrepresented South African populations (Muslim, Indian, and Coloured), and reflected the festival’s ongoing attempt to achieve a parity of voices on the main stage.

Relevant Revivals
Several large blockbuster pieces from previous festivals received revival performances in 2014. With each revival the same question surfaced: what did this piece mean then, and what does it mean now?

In Woman In Waiting (which premiered at Grahamstown in 1999) formidable performer Thembi Mtshali-Jones tells the story of her journey from domestic worker to Broadway performer. The piece, written with internationally acclaimed director Yael Farber, is testimonial in nature, rendering the audience as witnesses to Mtshali-Jones’ narrative of everyday trauma, exceptional endurance, and remarkable generosity. In a South Africa still navigating apartheid’s legacy, Woman In Waiting serves as a beautiful and stirring reminder of testimony’s centrality to the project of moving forward.

Two actors on stage
Ubu and the Truth Commission. Photo by Val Adamson. 

The possibility of a simple move toward a hopeful future was troubled, however, by the revival performance of William Kentridge, Jane Taylor, and Handspring Puppet Company’s magnificent Ubu and the Truth Commission. This adaptation shifts Alfred Jarry’s controversial 1896 play to a post-1994 South Africa publicly working through apartheid’s legacy by means of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Jarry’s corpulent Pa Ubu is reimagined as a policeman who committed horrendous acts of violence during apartheid and is called to testify before the truth commission. Using live actors (the excellent Dawid  Minnaar and Busi Zokufa play Pa and Ma Ubu), Handspring’s remarkable puppets that performed harrowing excerpts of TRC testimony, Kentridge’s powerful animation, documentary footage, and haunting music, the play examines the slipperiness of memory while chillingly probing the protean nature of truth. As Pa Ubu says: “Some histories are rewriting themselves all-around us.”

Fifteen years after its premiere, Ubu speaks to a South Africa still struggling with apartheid’s insidious and invisible fallout. And the final image—of Pa and Ma Ubu sailing off into a bright new future, scot-free—is all the more disturbing and infuriating now as it doubtlessly was in 1997.

A Question of Legacy
What is our responsibility to the past? Where are we now? How can we move forward?

Those were the questions asked, in different ways, by the artists whose work I saw at this year’s anniversary festival. And I have no doubt that these important questions (and maybe even a few new ones) will continue to be asked through the ambitious, imaginative, and committed performances on tap for next year’s “10 days of amazing.”


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