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Theatre should sow seeds of democracy's potential

By unknown | May 11, 2007 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

On a Wednesday evening, the foyer of the Wits University Theatre was filled with a noisy crowd, ready for an offering by the FNB Dance Umbrella, a yearly festival that showcases local and international dance and other cultural performances.

The buoyant atmosphere was broken by a commotion in one corner. A young white woman was being sexually assaulted by a bearded white man.

What the stunned crowd saw was a prelude to 6Minutes, performance artist Peter van Heerden's latest rumination on white guilt and on violence.

Inside the theatre, the audience saw more images of brutality, including the rape of an infant, represented by a plastic doll, the ritualistic chopping of raw meat and the ceremonial beating and hanging of 33-year-old Van Heerden.

Van Heerden, who describes himself as a "white, English-speaking African", is one of a new generation of theatre artists searching for new subject matter in a post-apartheid South Africa.

For him, that means grappling with what he views as white complicity in the problems facing the country, including soaring crime, Aids and the persistent gulf between rich and poor.

He attributes the problems facing blacks to the dehumanising effect of centuries of racist policies.

"We desperately need to unpack all this stuff and examine it because it's never going away," he said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, th eatre was political and apartheid was its subject.

"We've grown up as a country," said director and playwright Lara Foot Newton.

"Now the question is: Where do we derive our work from?"

Foot Newton, 39, gained international prominence in 2003 with Tshepang, which she wrote and directed.

Tshepang was a reimagining of a horrific event in 2001, the rape of a nine-month-old girl in a rural town. Many people claim that sexual violence against children has increased at an alarming rate. Others believe that this is not new, that the apartheid authorities simply ignored such black-on-black violence.

Foot Newton's delicate treatment offered an unflinching look at daily life in a desolate rural village. After Tshepang's success at home and on a two-year European tour, Foot Newton was offered a job as resident director at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.

Artists such as James Ngcobo take a more universal approach.

"Theatre has been bogged down by messages," he said.

Ngcobo, 38, has a recurring role on 90 Plein Streetand Foot Newton has directed him in five plays. His directing debut, The Suitcase, put audiences on notice that Ngcobo is also a serious director.

The play, which Ngcobo adapted from a 1955 short story by Es'kia Mphahlele, tells the story of the misfortunes of a young rural couple in the big city.

"You notice that the word 'apartheid' is never mentioned. That's because it portrays a worldwide phenomenon."

Ngcobo said that theatre needs to tell a variety of stories, not simply the ones about past racist policies.

"When I was growing up, apartheid was only part of the story," he said.

"Life was also about eating with the family, about doing homework. It was about love. We need to start writing about normal things."

"We can't have amnesia," he said, "but new work should reflect the potential of a new democracy.

"I'm an optimist. We have a chance to correct the mistakes of the past.

"We need to use theatre to sow the seeds of possibility."


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