Cry the Beloved Con Hill Art Collection

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When there is a light brown residue of dried bird shit and maybe rain stains in vague crusty rivulets from the ceiling of a space, when works of art have lost their labels and no one in the institution can tell you what they are or who made them, might it not be time to reconsider the value of a permanent exhibition? I always bemoan the brevity of the season of an excellent play or a beautifully curated exhibition, but is there such a thing as too long?

Recently, I had the need to visit Hillbrow’s Con Hill, with a particular focus on the art collection displayed there. Drawing on happy memories of being part of an enthusiastic walkabout conducted by Justice Albie Sachs just over ten years ago, I remembered the space with fondness, as one replete with important works of art as it is with a forward looking ethos.

It’s a spooky place, innovatively recast brick by brick from an apartheid penitentiary and into a democratic court house. Characteristically: it is cold. It’s a repository for ghosts. And all the art, some of it donated, some of it purchased, is as it was hung, virtually piece by piece, at that walkabout a decade ago.

The works remain important: the Judith Mason triptych The Man Who Sang and the Woman Who Kept Silent (1995); the Willem Boshoff seminal piece Prison Hacks (2003) made of eight granite slabs; the Regi Bardavid polyptych in conte crayon called Grief (1990) (pictured), the Marlene Dumas tapestries of 1998 and 2000 entitled The Benefit of the Doubt hauntingly installed just below the ceiling. There’s a beautiful Kentridge drawing, Sleeper (1997) and some fine work by Dumile Feni. There’s a series of HIV+ body images and some astonishingly tactile monographs of fires and riots made by Kim Berman in 1988. A sculpture in the middle of the space speaks of Noria Mabasa’s handling, but there is no label. We can’t be sure.

Each piece has a story: a fierce and powerful story of sadness and retribution, of racism and of victory, but none of them can be heard: The security staff will x-ray your handbag and be officious about your presence in the space, but can they tell you about the works themselves? Not a chance. Perhaps we came on a day when there were no tour guides available, but in the absence of labels or texts, or catalogues or anything speaking of the beauty and bravery of the space and the art in it renders them all intolerably mute.

The beautiful books created through David Krut Publishing on Con Hill’s architecture and art, respectively, seem a figment of the distant  past.

Budget restraints, the organisers might bellow, as any organisers for anything cultural seem to do with monotonous regularity these days. But surely when the collection was assembled those more than ten years ago, filled with hope and enthusiasm for a democratic future, something was put in place to maintain this collection, to keep it as dynamic and relevant as when it was installed? Or is this naïve?

Ten years is not that long. Spaces weather. Things get tired. And dated. Enthusiasm palls. The internal space of Con Hill which runs down the side of the building is rich with history; it is  beautiful. There’s interesting attention to detail in everything from the sunshades on the windows to the texture of the doors. There are subtle design elements on the edge of the low-slung staircase which echoes the place’s geography. There’s a peculiar use of a font fashionable at the time, to indicate names of different spaces. It speaks of a kind of self-congratulatory approach to the building, which is gimmicky yet almost endearing.

But has the Constitutional Court of this country, the home of the largest human rights library in the southern hemisphere, which boastfully calls itself the repository of the world’s most progressive constitution, and which took redoing itself so very seriously over a decade ago, lost interest in the passage of time and the upkeep of its appearance? Is it going to allow all those art works to continue to hang in this space until gravity and bird shit and exposure to air and sun shreds them to little bits?

Also read this piece.

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On celebrating new voices

Shannon Glover and Luis David Valle Ponce in La Bayadere. Photograph by Lauge Sorensen.

Shannon Glover and Luis David Valle Ponce in La Bayadere. Photograph by Lauge Sorensen.

 

Take a bunch of young people in their early 20s, many of whom have never been exposed to traditional European arts like classical ballet. Open their heads to a technical rehearsal of principal dancers for a work that hasn’t been stage in the city for more than 15 years. And what happens? Magic gets cast into the ether.

These extracts below, in no particular order, were written by 14 third year Fine Art students at the University of Johannesburg. Taking part in a five-week-long course that aimed to introduce them to the reality of arts writing, they each produced a piece of writing on site, in response to their experience of watching La Bayadere in rehearsal.

Luyanda Mpangele was completely seduced by the floor to ceiling window in Joburg Ballet’s rehearsal space at the Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein. “Cue music and the beauty reveals itself,” she writes. “All but the section in which the dancers are swirling and lifting is in saturated colour. A burst of energy, a narrative of love, a tragedy and a loss all shown through what looks to be effortless dancing. Little to no footsteps are heard and you get so lost in the synchronised music and dancing, that you forget that these people, like yourself, are grounded by gravity. Their bodies have been reshaped to become one with music and movement.”

“Flexible, tangible, graceful, soothing and so heavenly,” writes Lesley-Ann Julius. “Their bodies look like sculptures. Classical Greek sculptures.” She acknowledges “Ballet looks technical. Each step has to match every music beat. One can easily get lost in the dance, which is concentrated, intense and complicated. It is gracefully intense.”

Boitumelo Mazibuko compares the figures to drawings by Michelangelo. “The gracefulness of the moves comes from vigorous and impossible postures. Their love has to go through excruciating phases and this pain makes their story even more beautiful in the telling,” she adds, comparing the lifts, twists and collaborative enthusiasm to a well oiled machine “but with grace and poise.”

Jean Bollweg writes of “an abstract grace of natural smooth movement captured in the human figure, writing of poetry in movement.”

“One sees the importance of the body,” writes Theo Khuvutlu, “how the dancer works with the neck, head, shoulders and back, showing angles created with the body. The male dancers move differently from the female dancers. Their bodies and costumes seem softer on the audience’s eye: the musculature and jaggedness of the females in their tutus is harsh.”

Alvernia Morgan writes of how the dancers are swept into the moment. “They do not let their mistakes define them nor their successes.”

Jemma Dwyer is in awe of the physical strength of the performers, commenting on the breathlessness of each movement.

Writes Keilauren de Vries: “Music is the foundation of the art. It brings life to the dance. It channels through the dancers’ bodies, creating a duo of elegance and emotion. The art takes ownership of the dancers. They surrender their bodies and minds to the art to be sculpted into pristine art forms. Line, form, texture and repetition come together through the bodies of the dancers with obsessive consideration,” she adds, referring to the nature of the discipline as militant.  

Pebofatso Mokoena considers the marks made by Vincent Van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky as evocative of the “feast for the eyes” that the “energy agility and elegance of the human form presents.”

“If you have ever wondered what shape one’s breath may take on if it could manifest into a physical form, it would appear as a delicate, effortless dance between a prima ballerina and a danseur. Just as the body functions as an holistic entity, in which every cell, atom and organ operate on a subtle level of synchronicity and perfection, so too does the synergy, communication and synapses between the protagonists: ballet dancers, choreographer and composer, to reveal a complex configuration of self awareness, body consciousness and innate trust. The job of a professional ballet dancer is to communicate a sense of effortless agility, juxtaposed with disciplined control and tension through a perfected body language, akin to the whispering flutter of a hummingbird and the muscular power and freedom of a robust stallion. A sense of breathtaking mesmerising awe is projected onto the individual dancers while one’s ears are moved by nuanced orchestrated music, emotively guiding each physical succinct movement,” writes Jessica Doucha.

“Each move, curve and muscle is defined and recorded by mirrors, shadows and reflections of light which bounces around this immaculate space,” writes Robyn Jacobs, acknowledging the demanding yet beautiful nature of the dance and also commenting on the privilege of being able to be “let into a dancer’s private space.”

Daniella Gil considers the dancers’ movements “soft, swift and strong”, writing of how the show keeps the audience “intrigued and in awe”.

Also aware of the sacredness of the space, Nabeelah Abed writes, “The light bounces off the petite body of the lead dancer, Burnise Silvius. Watching her male counterpart carry her through the dance, creates a feeling of excitement and passion. During the dance, the chemistry felt between the dancers is uncanny. They become one, and they move as one. Their bodies intertwine to create a perfect balance of emotion and dance.”

Thinking of post-Impressionist painter Edgar Degas who painted series and series of ballerinas, Thina Dube writes, “I was drawn to how this art is very technical and requires long hours of dedication. It requires the ballerina to deliver those emotions with movement as well as tell a story with her whole body.”

La Bayadere is performed by the Joburg Ballet September 12-28, at the Joburg Theatre in Braamfontein. Visit www.joburgtheatre.com for further details.

Thomson: This year’s Dance Umbrella packs a hefty punch

Georgina Thomson. Photo courtesy artslink.co.za

Georgina Thomson. Photo courtesy artslink.co.za

It’s a small programme – certainly the smallest we’ve seen in over a decade, but this year’s Dance Umbrella which starts on Sunday night, packs a hefty punch, not only in terms of big names and important productions, but in terms of seeing the Dance Umbrella turn a corner. It’s 26 years since this contemporary dance festival in Johannesburg was coined.

Said Georgina Thomson (pictured), artistic director of the festival for 19 years: “I remember when it started: The whole country was so excited at the idea of a dance platform.” She was living in Durban at the time. In 1991, she moved to Johannesburg, to work at Wits, at the Performing Arts Administration with Mannie Manim and became indirectly involved with Dance Umbrella.

“Philip Stein who ran Vita – a corporate that earned its reputation for arts sponsorship, particularly in the fields of visual art, contemporary dance and craft – set me up, around that time in my own public relations company. Three years later, I was approached by the then manager of the Vita Awards Programme, Nicola Danby to join Dance Umbrella. And that was that.”

Thomson, a former dancer, has tirelessly fought the battle of funding versus critical merit in the difficult and oft obscure discipline of dance, which has presented all kinds of challenges to her from the shock art of Steven Cohen – which often pulled the mickey out of her as he challenged dance protocol with abandon and sometimes actual faeces onstage – to the Stepping Stones aspect of the festival, home to less professional dancers and groups and sometimes rank amateurs.

“The last five years haven’t been the best,” she admits. “In Vita’s time, in Philip Stein we had that wonderful bonus visionary. Every three years he negotiated a new contract with funders. Vita closed because FNB started withdrawing.” Stein died in 2010 after suffering a degenerative disease which had taken him out of the picture for several years. Dance Umbrella remained the only project supported by the FNB from Vita’s bouquet, but was dwindling.

“FNB withdrew funding altogether in 2008 or 2009. The first two or three years we were fine, and then the shift was apparent. I initially thought we wouldn’t have a problem: Dance Umbrella is a big event. We have international programmers. It’s national: we have people entering from all over the country. We commission work and its collaborations internationally. I was quite confident that we would find a new funder, but I was wrong.

“When FNB pulled out, there was no negotiation or communication. We were given a year’s notice by retired SA rugby union player, Francois Pienaar, who was handling the account. He humoured us, but we were not allowed to see or speak to anyone above him. We tried to get a leg in somewhere and just say, give us two years notice, but there was no way.” Thomson explains how the mounting of a festival as big as Dance Umbrella – in the past it has stretched over 10 days, jam-packed with productions – entails at least a three year lead, in terms of planning, funding and so on.

“The National Lottery has been our saviour,” she speaks of next year’s Dance Umbrella. “They really fund you properly. They partner you. Our funding for next year is already in the bank. We know that Dance Umbrella 2015 will happen, in February/March, as usual. Thank God.”

For most of its 26 years, Dance Umbrella was staged in the first quarter of the year. Last year and this, for funding reasons, it has piggy-backed on the Arts Alive festival, hosted by the city of Johannesburg, in early September.

Thomson agrees that this year’s Dance Umbrella is the smallest ever. “But it’s tight.” With seven works over the seven days of the festival’s duration, it is a festival in which you can easily see everything. The works are cherry picked and really promise something wonderful.

It features a lot of collaborations, with performers SA audiences know and love, including Vuyani Dance founder Greg Maqoma, who debuted under Sylvia Glasser’s tuition at Moving Into Dance and dances opposite Roberto Olivan in a piece called Lonely Together, to Cargo: Precious, the highly acknowledged dance focus on the story of Saartjie Baartman, choreographed by PJ Sabbagha and directed by Sylvaine Strike, which debuted at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last month.

There’s also a Brussels-based company from Zimbabwe, performing a piece called Baobab Shadows, choreographed by Harold George, and a piece from Portia Mashigo who has been working with people from Mpumalanga, entitled More In Than Out of Time. Another of Sylvia Glasser’s protégés, Luyanda Sidiya, the artistic director of Maqoma’s company presents ‘7 Pillars’ and Moya Michael, a Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance collaborates with Belarus dancer Igor Shyshko in a work called ‘Darling’ focusing on the horror of growing up under apartheid in South Africa, or in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster in Russia.

The Dance Umbrella’s headline work is Les Nuits (The Nights). It’s choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj, who runs world-renowned Paris-based dance company and is focused on The Arabian Nights. “I saw them perform in Reunion, and I have to say I have never seen anything like it. And I have been around for a long time. They blew me away. The work is balletic, but it is new. It is pure dance at its best. At its very, very, very top best. Whatever else you might see on any stage, you will never in your life see something like this. Ever,” she promises.

“Next year, we are doing a little bit of reconstructing in that we are stopping the Stepping Stones aspect of Dance Umbrella,” she continues. “It’s a decision which has been a long time coming. When it started 20 years ago, it was called the Fringe. And it was a fringe in which Moving Into Dance and the Tech and various other companies used to bring in younger dancers, but slowly it evolved into becoming more of a community focused thing, which is not a problem in itself: the problem arose in the reality that over the last five years or so, the same work keeps coming  back.”

She explains that after various approaches, she realised “these people are working and dancing in their communities. They are having great fun and they love Stepping Stones for this reason, but they do not want to take their work to the next critical level.

“We’ve replaced it with a new project called Street Dance, which comprises pantsula, hip hop and probably other forms. We’re working with Matthew Manamela, who used to dance with Adele Blank’s Free Flight Dance Company. He’s going to go to five different regions in Gauteng, together with David April and/or Sifiso Kweyama, to audition.”

The whole model of this aspect of the Dance Umbrella will change. “People must enter. Twelve groups will be selected. They will then be workshopped and developed into the presentation that they will be doing at the Dance Umbrella.

“We are also partnering with Sibikwa with a project called Negotiating Space which will be at the new big gallery space in Maboneng, Museum of African Design (MOAD). The project is loosely based on what they did a couple of years ago, with installation works in city spaces. People keen to participate will have to look at the gallery and construct their proposals accordingly.

“And then there’s a young choreographers platform, which will focus on getting students from any training programme to enter. And then the main programme is commissioned and/or international.

“The only work I can definitely tell readers about at this time is one by Constanza Macras, from Berlin who has been residencing here.  She’s going to be premier the work she’s been workshopping here.” Dance fans will remember her astonishing 2008 work, Hell on Earth, which involved street children and a glorious miscellany of approaches. She also mentioned that Jay Pather, director of the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts in Cape Town, will be presenting a big installation “all over Johannesburg.” No foreigner to site specificity, he is remembered for his 2005 work at Hillbrow’s Constitution Hill, The Beautyful Ones Must Be Born and his 2012 Qaphela Caesar, which forced the Cape Town City Hall and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange into a completely unexpected focus.

Next year’s Dance Umbrella will be staged at the two Soweto Theatres, the Dance Factory and the Market Theatre in Newtown, as well as the MOAD Gallery. The Wits Theatre will be busy renovating at that time.

For further information on this year’s Dance Umbrella, visit www.danceforumsouthafrica.co.za or call 011-492-0709.

Anne Frank’s Voice: raw but ruptured

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There is an almost insufferable intensity in the ramblings of an articulate and intelligent teenager. Unsullied by the cynicism that comes of disappointment, by the frustration of disrespect and the curse of seeking out finances, or by the leering shadow of context and criticism, these are people with audaciously fresh and bright dreams. They are capable of expressing a thirst for life and an enthusiasm for the future which might sear your older and wiser eyeballs. How much more so is this evident in the diary of Anne Frank, a Jewish German-born child living in Amsterdam on the cusp of the Anti-Semitic tidal wave just before the Second World War, which culminated in the Holocaust.

She was 13 when she went into hiding in a tiny suite of rooms behind a cupboard which she mooted ‘the secret annexe’ in a warehouse in the industrial part of the city. She was holed up with seven other people, including her parents and sister, and a boy a couple of years her senior. Over two years, Frank wrote a diary.

Five months before the end of the war, the ‘secret annexe’ was betrayed and raided by Nazis. Anne Frank and her sister Margot eventually landed up in the concentration campus of Bergen-Belsen where they contracted typhoid fever. The war ended, but both girls died, within weeks of each other. Anne’s diary was discovered by a cleaner, after the raid, and her father Otto, who survived the war, was instrumental in having it published. It is, today, considered one of modern literature’s great works.

But, has everyone who comes to see Mirenka Cechova’s theate piece premised on the diary, really read it?

Cechova is a formidably talented dancer. For a good portion of this work, we see only her back as she contorts her body and her voice around the text. It is heart wrenching, dramatic and magnificent and it has a denouement brought into play with light and sound that is simply haunting.

Her solo role is balanced by the presence of ‘cellist Nancy Joe Snider, atop a wardrobe, who, in the same way as Kutlwano Masoto in Greed or Bernett Mulungo in The Mother of All Eating, both recently staged in Johannesburg, allows the voice of the instrument to become a voice in the script. And there’s a depth of resonance and a beauty that happens with this device.

However, unlike the nuanced subtleties evoked by Masoto’s ‘cello and the sarcasm created by Mulungo’s piano, Snider’s ‘cello only listens and echoes. It doesn’t have an ‘opinion’ of its own or a sense of wit. But it does, after all, represent the voice of Kitty, the imaginary contemporary to whom Anne Frank has addressed letter after letter, page after page.

Cechova, in a costume that is something between a full apron and a onesie, with her hair behind an alice band, is everything 13-year-old Anne described herself as. She’s smart and witty. She’s emotional yet cunning. She’s sensitive and nimble with language. She can be cruel and hilarious in her descriptions of the people around her, the circumstances into which she is crammed. She is also susceptible to love. She is hungry for knowledge and painfully aware of how limited her experience of the world is. She’s powerful and frail: caught in a web of contradiction and imposed hardship. Her bravery and robustness are peppered with self-deprecation and humour. In short: she’s completely three dimensional.

Cechova dances in and around the iconic child’s words and worlds with a sensitivity that makes you want to stay your heart. There’s a bigness to her gestures and an astonishing sense of innovation in the piece’s design, but also an invested respect for the authenticity of a teenager grappling for meaning in the world, that really does take your breath away.

But, there’s a level of assumption with regard to Anne Frank’s story, that lends this Czech-based work rupture in its brilliance. When you go and see the artistic intepretation of a great complicated, long, difficult, classic — Anna Karenina or The Lord of the Rings, for instance: you never contemplate the need to do prior homework. The challenge of the makers of the piece are such that the basic bones of the tale are evident. Edited it must be, but the nub of it needs to have clarity to everyone in the audience: Big and small, young and old, literate and not.

This is not the case with The Voice of Anne Frank, sadly. While the skipping across chronology inside and out and back again, are not distracting, it is the nuances in the personal realities of the diary that are brushed damagingly away. We’re not made aware that ‘Pim’ is an endearing nickname for Anne’s father. Or that Kitty is a figment of Anne’s imagination. You don’t really understand the horror of the situation in which she is entrapped. Indeed, many children are obliged to read the book as a part of their school curricula, but do they imbibe it initimately? Do they remember it? With a few explicit narrative triggers, this beautiful work would have melted any audience into oblivion. But as it stands, to enjoy it properly, you need to read the text first.

The Voice of Anne Frank: The Performance conceived by Mirenka Cechova and directed by Petr Bohac is performed by Cechova and Nancy Joe Snider, and is at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theate Complex, Newtown, until August 29.

Čechová brings Anne Frank to the stage as a dance work

Photograph by Martin Marak.

Photograph by Martin Marak.

She might not be Jewish, but she understands how the Holocaust remains in Europe’s blood and bones. Miřenka Čechová (32) (pictured), internationally respected Czech performer and choreographer, was seven years ago so swept away by Anne Frank’s diary, that she created a work about it. “I recognise Anne in me,” she told the SAJR last week. <<A version of this story was published in this week’s issue of the SA Jewish Report: http://www.sajr.co.za>&gt;

Anne Frank earned iconic status as a teen diarist. Born in Germany, she spent her childhood in Amsterdam and lived in a secret annexe in the industrial part of the city, with her family and four other people, between 1942 and 1944: as Jews they were under threat of Nazi persecution.

On August 4, 1944, German security police and Dutch Nazis raided the annexe and sent its occupants to concentration camps. Five months later, the war ended.  

In Bergen-Belsen, Anne and her sister Margot contracted typhus. In February, Margot died. The loss of her sister broke Anne’s spirit; she died in March 1945 – three months shy of her 16th birthday.

In 1947 her father, Otto, who survived, facilitated the publishing of her diary, picked up by a cleaner, in the Amsterdam raid’s wake.

The diary is much more than teen ramblings; it reaches into the psyche of a thoughtful, three-dimensional sensitive and real person trapped in an insufferable situation, and traces her emotional growth belying her age. The diary spawned presence in the arts, from theatre to film. Now, it is articulated a dance work.

“In the Czech Republic, Holocaust history remains in our blood and bones,” Čechová, celebrated the world over, speaks of her work’s fragility. “It is constructed of subtle intimate emotions, expressed with honesty and authenticity onstage.

“I read the diary for the first time, like most Czech children, at 13. But I read it again as an adult at university. That time, I fully appreciated its depth.”

The work, which debuted in Prague in 2008, was funded by the European Association of Jewish Culture. It was Čechová’s first collaboration with director Petr Boháč. “It took us nine months: It was like our baby. It’s probably the most essential work we’ve made.”

She is incredulous as to the legs this work has grown. It was her final masters degree project at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts, where today she lectures, having won a Fulbright scholarship and attained her doctorate.

The work was feted at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2013, which triggered the Market Theatre season in Johannesburg. “Its set comprises two wardrobes. In one, ‘cellist Nancy Joe Snider, represents Anne’s imaginary friend, Kitty, the diary’s addressee. A call-and-response energy is generated.”

The costumes are also minimalist: “Nakedness interests me – without masks or pretence.”

Last year, Čechová fell in love with South Africa. “Coming from Europe, I’ve never been this intimate with nature. It brings me to my human origins.” She also visited a township, and was exposed to cuisine and jamming. “I joined in, with drums! In this trip, I want to dive deeper.”

  •  The Voice of Anne Frank is at the Market Theatre in Newtown until August 29.

Gross Indecency will make you laugh till you weep

Rita Haywire (Robert Colman) and Lana Turna-me-over (Robert Whitehead) giving it stick in their spoofed up radio-drama, Gross Indecency. Photograph courtesy POP Arts.

Rita Haywire (Robert Colman) and Lana Turna-me-over (Robert Whitehead) giving it stick in their spoofed up radio-drama, Gross Indecency. Photograph courtesy POP Arts.

If you need a bit of a tonic to set you on your feet again, Gross Indecency might be just the thing. It’s loud, it’s crude and it wields a strong and hilarious attack on the stupidity of homophobic bigots.

Featuring Robert Whitehead – aka Barker Haines in Isidingo – opposite Robert Colman, as Lana Turna-me-over and Rita Haywire, respectively, it’s billed as the true story of a big party in Forest Town, a larny suburb of Johannesburg, in 1966.

Gross Indecency is not your typical drag act, though it’s littered with words and phrases in queer slang or Gayle – described by Ken Cage as the language of Kinks and Queens – as well as all kinds of complicated and delicious references to gay stereotypes and metaphors.

A gloriously complicated story of discrimination and lasciviousness, where the characters change roles as they change sunglasses, it’s spoofed on radio theatre, decorated with several glorious dollops of nostalgia and brought to pants-wettingly funny incongruities, which don’t stop throughout its just over an hour’s duration. Featuring characters as hateful and fantastic as legal counsel Morris Finger opposite psychiatrist Shirley Cochran, Balthazar John Vorster, one of South Africa’s former State Presidents, and some cops with shady Bloemfontein-based histories, it’s doesn’t stop for an instant in its unravelling of a rich and brocaded reflection of ageing South African gay identity, complete with metaphorical feathery boas and glittery stuff.

Armed with a puce wig, Whitehead in many respects steals the show. His beautiful face stretches and contorts into the most inglorious of expressions and he carries his effervescently over-the-top character with grotesque charm that makes you strain to take your eyes from him. Lana’s sidekick Rita (Colman), replete with his endearing gap between his two front teeth is no less fabulous and lewd, but is the lesser character in the whole ramshackle tale, which involves gross indecency in a whole range of permutations.

The text is really hilarious, particularly when it forays in the thorny area between English and Afrikaans, highlighting and savouring the extremely rude nuances, as it creates glissandos of queer sub-text that will make your head spin. But it also makes your heart roar: underneath all the outrageously funny stuff, which is brought to an astonishing sense of polish with Tony Bentel on keyboard, the work is a raw essay on the reality of homosexual discrimination under apartheid.

While the piece is maybe five or ten minutes too long, and gets a little lost in its own flash backs and repeated moments, it’s something that you leave from with a huge smile on your face, but a depth of focus in your heart around the desperate horror of being different in a militaristic society.

Gross Indecency is written, directed and performed by Robert Colman, Toni Morkel, and Robert Whitehead with Tony Bentel as the orchestra. It performs at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg until August 17.

Alison’s story: Everyone’s worst nightmare

Alison (Suanne Braun) after her ordeal, in terror and heavily bleeding, drags herself to help. Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

Alison (Suanne Braun) after her ordeal, in terror and heavily bleeding, drags herself to help. Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

A version of this review appeared in the SA Jewish Report in the issue of August 15. sajr.co.za

Mention Alison to virtually anyone in SA in 1994; they’ll know who you mean. In December that year, in a story that rocked the media, this ordinary woman in her 20s who worked at a travel agency, was abducted outside her Port Elizabeth home by two white men. They raped, stabbed and almost disembowelled her. Her throat was slashed16 times. She was left for dead. Miraculously, she survived. This is her story. And it’s everyone’s worst nightmare.

This play hangs on this story’s momentum. Rape is complicated to depict onstage. It cannot be sexy. Or comical. But it must be legible. Alison’s attack in the first part of this play is terrifying, sickening and dramatically impeccable.

In the script, her inner voices shout in her quest to get help. Bleeding heavily, she dragged herself several hundred metres to Port Elizabeth’s Marine Parade, where she was found. The relationship between Alison and her body and her inner voices is impeccably and hauntingly handled, by the cast and director.

But when a play is underpinned by this much historical veracity, its narrative is sacred. Alison was in the audience on opening night. As was the man, then a young veterinary science student, who stopped to help her. The play is based on Marianne Thamm’s book, featuring verbatim interviews with her.

Is it still a play? Can it be subject to critique? On one hand, yes: it is professionally performed. And yet, as a work bound by factual truth, it teeters between representing Alison’s ordeal and a sense of advocacy, which tells you how to respond to the story.

These limits shouldn’t allow the work’s professionalism to be compromised. The court scene is a case in point. It was the first time Alison– who was able to identify her attackers and be material in their sentencing — was given closure and triumph. It could have been a crescendo to the piece, and yet, it is bland and wooden in its performance and lighting, and immensely amateurish.

Further, aside from a strong performance by Suanne Braun in the lead, the rest of the five-strong cast play several characters supporting the story, from the killers to Alison’s mom, Alison’s friends to bystanders in seamy central PE. These roles are not directed convincingly, resulting in a cardboard cutout blurring of detail which hurts the story.

So, what do you leave with? After holding tightly to your seat, your knuckles will be  whitened, but after its violent denouement, the play is flooded with religious saccharine.

Unlike the extraordinary play ‘A Human Being Died that Night’, based on the text by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela about Eugene de Kock’s apartheid crimes, Alison’s story is not fleshed out with context. You’re not left contemplating evil, or ill-luck. You’re glad Alison recovered and re-made her life, but there’s scant grist for the thinking mill in this story in which ordinary people became heroes. And it is upon that that critique teeters. No, it isn’t flawless. But yes, it’s worth seeing. And retelling. And, bring tissues.

  • I Have Life: Alison’s Journey is written and directed by Maralin Vanrenen, based on the book by Marianne Thamm. It features design by Denis Hutchinson (set and lighting) and Jemma Kahn (costumes) and is performed by Clayton Boyd; David de Beer; Suanne Braun; Zak Hendrikz; and Shaleen Tobin. It performs at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until August 30.