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Grahamstown 2003: a festival of South African identities

A retrospective glance by Deborah Seddon

Each year the sleepy city of Grahamstown transforms itself for the National Arts Festival, and one of the delights of being on the ground during this week is encountering the human drama, both that which is staged and that which happens unpredictably amongst the shows and stalls.

The street cafés that spring up buzz with life and talk, whilst the sound of marimba bands and singing groups on the streets filter in as a soundtrack. The Rhini street children paint their faces with white clay, but this year most of them did not sing. Instead they stood for hours in the cold, frozen in positions that could only be shifted by a sudden toss of coins into their waiting hats.

On the lawns in front of the university, the street theatre production Small Change told the story of these children in more detail — the result of collaboration between the Rhodes Drama Department and the local Eluxoweni Children’s Shelter. Street theatre was a strong feature of this year’s festival, as a means of reaching out to an increasingly diverse audience.

The Magnet Theatre production Onnest’bo, which explored the family histories of District Six, also used the medium of outdoor theatre, presenting their work outside of designated theatre spaces so as to reach the maximum number of people. The 10-minute puppet show The Alchemist’s Heart won hearts and audiences with its miniature version of circus magic in a story of a South African woman who searches for a new heart along the canals of Amsterdam.

Then there was the unpredictable theatre, the theatre of the hearts and minds of audiences affected. At the Wordfest poetry sessions, audiences thumped the tables and whooped in appreciation at poems that openly criticised the illusions of a new South Africa or celebrated the new-found power of individual lives.

The audience greeted Roy Sargeant’s adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country, brought to the stage to mark the centenary of Alan Paton’s birth, with a standing ovation. There was a tangible sense of appreciation; the active owning of these stories of the nation; a need to understand and connect. Standing ovations were the response to many of the productions I saw performed.

And then there was the unforgettable reaction of a fellow audience member: a young Asian man, so enchanted by the movie about the composer Elgar that he walked downstairs and treated everyone who happened to be in the Monument foyer at the time to a spontaneous and beautifully moving rendition of Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu at the piano provided for the nightly sundowner concerts. It was magic — as richly sincere as many of the planned performances that make up the drama of the city in festival week.

The highlight of a transformed city this year had to be the procession, down High Street, of citizens carrying olive branches. The large crowd walked towards the Cathedral for a Ceremony of Reconciliation, at which Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Judge Albie Sachs, and Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, amongst others, told their stories and massed choirs provided stirring musical accompaniment.

One of the most important books to be launched at Wordfest this year was Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died that Night, her searing account of her work as a psychologist with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This launch contributed to the central theme of Wordfest: South Africa’s ongoing struggle for justice and reconciliation. The event was one of the most moving of a festival which gets better and better as it becomes more and more representative of South Africa, and contrary to appearances on the streets — bigger.

Although the party atmosphere on the city streets was notably absent this year, the crowds attending performances are steadily increasing. According to the figures released by festival director Lynette Marais, over 121 000 people attended the festival in Grahamstown this year, an increase of 18,7% compared with last year’s increase of 5,2%. There were 352 events and 1 795 presentations this year, compared with the 342 events and 1 302 presentations in 2002. This year’s combined ticket sales for the main and fringe programmes showed an increase of 23,24%. This was mostly seen on the fringe, with an increase of 27,54% compared with an increase of 6,09% for the year before. The main programme attendance also increased, by 7,71%, with an increase in monetary sales of 3,98%.

The involvement of the Eastern Cape government as a major sponsor has contributed a new face to the festival. The Eastern Cape government has committed a total of R9 million per year for three years, and Eastern Cape Department of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture spokesperson Masiza Mazizi said it has been a great way of profiling both the province and Xhosa culture.

The involvement of the Eastern Cape government also reflects a changed audience. As crowds moved about the Village Green or entered theatre venues, they were a welcome sight, evidence that — at long last — audiences, like the shows on offer, are becoming more representative of all South Africans.

In his address to the media, festival head Mannie Mannim stressed the importance of the five sponsors — the Eastern Cape government, Standard Bank, the National Distribution Lottery Trust Fund, the SABC and the National Arts Council — to the continued health of the festival and the Eastern Cape Province.

Twenty-eight years into its existence the festival looks as if it is here to stay, and the diverse and exploratory productions by South African artists took on serious issues with grace and power. Aids, baby rape, and the question of the nation’s tortured past formed the focus of some of this year’s finest productions.

Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year winner (for drama) Yael Farber presented Molora, her reworking of the Oresteia Trilogy. This dark and challenging play examined the drive towards vengeance and the impulse to forgive. The play weaves the story of the ancient cycles of revenge together with recent South African history, portraying on stage the horrific bag torture which surfaced at the TRC hearings. Her choice of the ancient tragedy was significant: according to Farber, South Africa’s coming to terms with the need for retribution is unique. In light of recent world events after 11 September, the production highlights the unique sense of possibility that emanates from South Africa’s story — the space given to choice, against the impulse to revenge and the spiralling patterns of violence, to find a more creative response to suffering.

Farber’s production was motivated by both national and international events, as was Nadia Davids’s At Her Feet, an exploration of the diverse identities of South African Muslim women, which was both funny and poignant in its send-up and put-down of stereotypes.

This was also grist to the mill of Greig Coetzee’s highly successful and satirically funny Happy Natives, which told the story of two men’s attempt to create and present the great South African story. As Pete and Mto rehearse their money-making Rainbow Nation fantasy in Mto’s backyard, the real South Africa begins — inevitably — to intrude.

The real South Africa was present in many shows, most notably in Lara Foot Newton’s stunning Tshepang, which explores the first baby rape case to make headline news. It was also present in the rich array on offer from South African filmmakers, including two sessions from the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year (for film), Dumisani Phakhati, which explored themes from Aids and taxi violence to homelessness, and forced removals.

Other highlights included Janice Honeyman’s colourful and well-realised presentation of Mandela’s favourite folk-tales for children in Madiba Magic and Chris Mann’s Thuthula, a reworking of the famous story of love and betrayal in which the passion for one woman brought the Xhosa nation to war in the 1700s.

If there was a theme that united the best of what the festival theatre programme had to offer this year it was identity, personal and political, private and national. South African performers and writers are clearly collaborating across sectors of the community, are searching their nation and themselves, undertaking exploratory works that negotiate between the present and the past, between identity and self-representation. The quality of their productions is a welcome demonstration not only of talent in this country but of how this talent is being channelled into the urgency to tell South Africa’s stories in all their unexplored complexities, their pain and joy.

  • OpStage thanks Deborah Seddon for undertaking the gargantuan task of single-handedly covering the theatre programme at the recent Grahamstown National Arts Festival.

    Julie 2003

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