Play debunks lies we are fed

I HAVE been to theatre to watch countless productions over the years. Some plays I admire for their social appropriateness, for the linguistic skills of the script writers, the technical precision of the director, the lighting designers, stage managers, the acting and so on.

I HAVE been to theatre to watch countless productions over the years. Some plays I admire for their social appropriateness, for the linguistic skills of the script writers, the technical precision of the director, the lighting designers, stage managers, the acting and so on.

And yet others are horrible in every aspect. There are also those that I feel are terribly conceptualised even though the acting and everything else was superb.

Some plays, because of the contentious issue of racial representation, particularly by white writers and directors, and to a lesser extent by black writers, I find quite patronising to black people.

And often when one points at these faults you are likely to offend those involved in the production, and sometimes the audience.

A play is meant to create a dialogue, get people to stop and think and engage each other. It does not matter whether we all agree, it should reflect the times, the society and the cultural nuances of our time.

If a play succeeds in this, it is a success. Often people who are caught in between are the critics.

These thoughts occupied my mind based on a letter distributed to the media and written by the creators of a play, Happy Shabalala, currently running at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein.

The creators have publicly rebuked those who see their play differently.

This has never happened in South African theatre for a long time, and this is not necessarily bad as it means we are engaging each other on perspectives about our society, which is in transition.

Parts of the letter read: "As the creators of the critically acclaimed Happy Shabalala, we were astounded that some felt 'disappointed' and 'insulted' when Harry Sideropoulos transformed his face by painting it black to portray Bongani Khumalo and Sibongile Sisulu.

"Not many minded. A few did, though. And it was fascinating. They appeared to be outraged and insulted that we would take the pretence that far.

"They seemed to have missed the theatrical device of physically transforming Harry into those characters, while they talk about transformation in South Africa.

"This reaction is a bit strange, considering that as South Africans, everything around us is painted over with veneers. Let's face it: we're a nation that loves ideals - in theory. That's why marketing messages about togetherness and opportunity abound! In adverts people hug, service providers care, telecoms connect, banks are on your side and government delivers.

"One night of TV and you'd swear there was more love in SA than at a peace conference the Dalai Lama was actually allowed to attend. But none of us buy the bollocks, do we? We're South African, for crying in a bucket!

"We grew up with fences, no one really trusts authority, watching only your own back is ingrained in our national psyche and we know that business is business - how else can current circumstances of perpetual inequality be explained? Come on, smile. It's a funny mirror - too tragic for tears.

"Crime and poverty persist and service delivery does not; our education system is still churning out functional illiterates; our telecoms operators hamstring us with exorbitant costs and mind numbing inefficiencies; our banks are an informal cartel charging what they like; how can we help you, help us, help up our share price, and there's more scandal in government than a 15-year omnibus of Egoli, Generations and Isidingo!

"And nothing's being done - other than to wrap a rainbow ribbon around it, stick a 'Ke Nako' on the box and rapid bus transport it to nowhere, if you can get through the taxi blockade. As Bongani the gardener - one of the show's characters - puts it: for him, the only things freedom changed are the names - Baragwanath to Chris Hani, Jan Smuts to OR Tambo; "garden boy" to "flora enhancement executive". Bongani gives expression to the voiceless "Everyman", irrespective of colour. It's a pity some missed the essence of his words and saw only a white man transformed to a black man.

"It's the South African way - paint it over and smile for the camera. Painting Harry's face in a very real way is endemically South African. Did we want to offend? Never. Did we want to portray genuine characters? Certainly. Was the black face necessary? We believe so. It merely strengthened the characters, with no offence intended, other than to those promoting the incongruities behind the real veneer that our characters show up. That's satire.

"The lies, half-truths and omissions we are bombarded with are the real mask that should be torn down - with laughter and understanding. We believe that nowhere is the truth being delivered with genuine laughter than in Happy Shabalala - Strato Copteros, Charmaine Weir-Smith, Harry Sideropoulos.

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