Upon the invitation of Emma Durden and Roel Twijnstra of Twist Theatre Projects and with the financial support of the Dutch Embassy in Pretoria, ICAF director Eugene van Erven recently traveled – together with Stut actors Güner Güven and Hassan Oumhamed and director Sharon Varekamp – to South Africa.
We arrived in Durban on Monday 28 November, after an 18-hour journey via Munich and Johannesburg. The next day, we drove with Emma and Roel to the University of Kwazulunatal in the city of Pietermaritzburg. We were welcomed enthusiastically by students of the drama department and their lecturer, Ntokozo. Güner and Hassan performed their double bill, Friend and Mahmoud, in the university theatre and received a standing ovation from the audience of 50. Then I presented an illustrated overview at my typical neck break pace of community arts around the world in all its varieties. Judging by the reactions of the students that, too, was greatly appreciated. It made me fantasize about coming back one day to engage with these students for a much longer time.
On Wednesday, Roel took us around to the township of Umlazi, to the South of Durban. There we met the twins Siso and Goso, who run a community arts center in their neighbourhood. They performed a powerful piece of physical theatre about two brothers who symbolize the divided South Africa. Afterwards, Güner and Hassan spontaneously offered to perform their show Friend as a gesture of their gratitude. The encounter ‘clicked’ so well that Stut is currently investigating the possibility – with the help of ICAF and the city of Utrecht – to bring Siso and Goso over the the Netherlands next March.
Around noon, we drove through the extended Kwamashu township (to the North of Durban and one of South Africa’s largest) to the Wushwini arts center, a rural facility on the slopes overlooking the Inanda dam. The center, which includes an open air and a small indoor theatre, a library, a video and sound editing studio, as well as a restaurant, is the brainchild of Jerry Pooe. Jerry, who is a close friend of Roel Twijnstra’s, is an energetic, visionary theatre entrepreneur. At Wushwini he offers training to local kids, but he also produces festivals and ad-hoc events that provide meaningful entertainment (and income) to people from the area. An already perfect Wednesday finished in style with a home-cooked meal prepared by Roel’s South African wife Philisiwe at their lovely home in Durban.
On Thursday morning we drove back to Kwamashu to see a community show of Intuba Arts Development. Directed by Twist associate Xolani Duncan Dlongolo, it dealt with two orphaned siblings trying to create a future in an existentially confusing township context. It was an effective prelude to the Isigcawu community theatre festival in Kwamashu that would keep me more than occupied over the next three days.
The festival opened with Güner and Hassan’s Friend followed by It’s a Wrap, the winner of a similar festival in Johannesburg. Apparently there are quite a number of such community theatre festivals all over South Africa in which youth theatre groups from townships compete for money prizes and an increased reputation that will make it possible for them to tour and earn a living. In that respect, unlike in the Netherlands, community theatre in South Africa seems much more like a mix of youth theatre and talent development with an additional aim of creating job opportunities in the arts than injecting meaningful cultural life into marginal and artistically under-resourced communities.
The following day, Friday, my job as a jury member of the festival began for real. I had two colleagues, Musa (an internationally known choreographer) and Sma (a successful local radio and television producer), and together we had to view ten-minute versions of 29 shows that day. From these we had to select ten productions that we considered worthy of being performed in full the next day. But there was more: at the end of an already long day of watching plays of varying quality (of which quite a few were in Zulu), we were expected to give all the directors constructive feedback. This turned into an unexpected workshop lasting several hours. Exhausted but also incredibly enriched by this day-long immersion in contemporary community theatre from Kwazulunatal, I finally made it back to our guesthouse by 10 PM.
No rest for the wicked, because after a short night and a quick cornflake breakfast the festival continued on Saturday at 9 AM. On this day, Musa, Sma and I had to choose five productions that would be allowed to compete for the first prize of 25,000 Rand in the final round on Sunday. That process, too, lasted well into the evening and once again we had to give detailed feedback and suggestions to the directors and playwrights of the shows. Thus, in addition to a competition, the festival turned into a fascinating interactive three-day theatre making workshop. Partly dazed by all the impressions of that day, driving back to the guesthouse through the township on Saturday night felt like a hallucinatory ride.
On Sunday morning, I missed seeing Hassan’s solo Mahmoud and a performance by a Zimbabwean group, because Musa, Sma and I were heatedly debating whom we would let go through to the final round. Finally, at the end of another long day, we could announce the winner: Newcastle Art with the production Human Race. It was by far the funniest and best acted piece performed by three stunning actors playing a priest, the South African president, and a very comic hustling South African everyman. In addition to the money prize they would also be given the opportunity to perform their play at the world-renowned Grahamstown festival next July. My personal favourite, however, was a solo performance called Chameleon in which a very gifted actor played the internal struggle of a schizophrenic. With humor, brutal frankness and theatrical guts, it tackled mental health care, a subject that is seldom addressed in South African theatre.
With hardly a moment to catch our breath – while I had been at the festival, Hassan, Güner and Sharon had conducted a workshop for Twist partners in the Stables theatre downtown – the first week had flown by. Our weekend finally started on Monday, when Güner, Hassan and I rented a car to drive to Johannesburg. Needless to say we took the long, scenic route, first through the Hluhluwe Game Reserve and then straight down through rural Zululand to Ladysmith and the Drakensberg mountains. We even took a daytrip to Lesotho, the world’s third poorest country high up in the mountains and surrounded on all sides by South Africa, whose townships looks affluent in comparison.
We arrived in Johannesburg on Thursday afternoon. Oupa Malatjie, who had been to ICAF several times before, met us at the airport and took us to Tembisa township, where he lives and works. We stayed at a small, very overpriced guesthouse in Tembisa, which was a trip in itself. The following day, Oupa and his group performed his latest play, with which he hopes to win a community theatre festival in Johannesburg in December. It was a family comedy about mistaken identities that clearly entertained the local audience that had flocked to see it in the community center where Oupa works. Güner and Hassan also performed Friend one last time. Our friend Connie Sedumedi, a textile artist who had been at our last festival in 2011, had come all the way from Soweto to Tembasi (close to an hour’s drive) to come see it. We decided to return the favour by accompanying her her and her daughter Nina back for a meal in her township. We ended up eating in a lively outdoor restaurant on Vilakazi Street, just down the road from where Nelson and Winnie Mandela lived between 1946 and 1962.
When we drove back from Soweto to our guesthouse in Tembisa, we were stopped by the police. Because Oupa drives in a white BMW, a car favoured by gangsters, he was immediately suspect. Not having his papers in order and having three white guys in the back (yes, a Turk and a Moroccan are also considered white in South Africa) didn’t help his cause either. We were kept by the roadside for more than half an hour. It was bloody cold (Johannesburg is 2,000 metres high) and the two cops were frankly intimidating. They threatened to jail us, but they finally let us go after I discretely gave them all the cash I had in my pocket (which wasn’t too much, fortunately). It was a fitting final experience of a fascinating encounter with a beautiful country full of promises, contrasts, resources, hardships and wonderful, talented people, but which still is a far way from reaching its full potential. But then again, which country isn’t?