theatre fallout of the past year

Edward Tsumele

Edward Tsumele

There was one single event in theatre early this year that highlighted the sensitive issue of transformation. This event will remain etched in the consciousness of theatre audiences for a long time to come.

The evening was just about to come to an end. And everyone was waiting for this big one: which theatre personality or production would walk away with the biggest award of the evening - the best production musical of the year?

Then at that right time, right moment and when everybody had just taken a deep breath, readying themselves for the final announcement, The Lion King, co-produced and co-directed by Lebo M, was declared the winner by the Naledi judges.

There was loud applause as Lebogang Morake ascended the stage. This was logically supposed to be a moment of celebration. However, that was not to be.

The declaration of Lebo M's musical as the musical of the year was quite symbolic in many ways. During the evening's proceedings, one could detect some discomfort among the audience as one winner after another was something else other than black Thespians.

There were, in fact, a handful of black actors who went home with a Naledi statuette at the end. Very small indeed compared to all the winners that went home smiling from the Lyric Theatre at Gold Reef City that evening.

However, they were amazingly in a minority in a sector that boasts black acting talent, and yet the biggest theatre awards for excellence seem to elude these actors as the hand-picked judges, year in and year out, ignore them.

This was the source of the discomfort, and not only during these awards ceremonies, but the pain is often also played out in dinner talk, in bars, restaurants and places of comfort, far and far away from the crowd that forms this country's mainstream theatre.

So somebody, somewhere was bound to stir the hornet's nest.

This time it was the Lion King boss himself who seized the opportunity to make that comment that changed the perception of South African theatre as progressive and quite ahead of other sectors in accommodating the aspirations, talents and ambitions of a marginalised, yet majority section of the theatre community, the black acting talent.

Without any warning, Lebo M declared: "I am a very, very proud South African and I am a very, very angry South African. This is one of the reasons why one feels like going back to exile. This country has to be welcoming.

"I, Lebo M, a Sowetan who has brought the biggest musical to the African continent, which has won every single award of excellence throughout the world, feels very insulted.

"I was actually thinking very hard whether to accept this award or not."

At this stage there was grumbling and uncertain laughter in the audience.

"l feel insulted that I should be seated at the back when throughout the world I am used to seating at the front.

"If you do not understand, there are some people among you who understand what I am talking about. How come that in these awards there is no other single black person (except him), who has won any award for excellence?" he said and left the stage without picking up his statuette.

Simply put, Lebo M hit hard at the Naledis in particular and the industry in general for not acknowledging black talent in its midst.

Awards are dished out to other actors, while black actors not recognised.

It did not make matters easier for Dawn Lindberg, the organiser, and her team when it transpired that Lebo M was given a seat right at the back when other notable playwrights were at the front.

It also happened that most of those at the front also happened to be white. His speech led to the theatre fallout of the year as it raised a storm.

Radio shows and television slots went all out to tackle the issue of transformation in theatre, and Lebo M became a spoiler in the eyes of those who would like to see the issue of transformation not talked about.

In the end, Lindberg was forced to change how she was going to run the awards, for example, hand-picking more black judges in order for the awards to be seen to be more representative. She and a number of mainly white mainstream theatre practitioners and producers were forced into a defensive position.

This single event in 2008 defined the state of theatre and race politics in the performance arts in the country.

It took somebody as powerful and as influential as Lebo M to raise an issue that has been festering for quite sometime - who gets to tell whose story on stage, how and where?