ZANE MEAS ADORES everything about South African writer Chris van Wyk. It’s about the cunning and oft self-deprecating magic of being Coloured in a world that doesn’t consider you black enough or white enough. It’s about the chalky memories of racism and the mixed up words and opaque lies that the apartheid government spewed in the direction of their own dirty acts. It’s about beautiful language and a complete love of books. But if memories of a large bottle of Fanta with a rim of communal crumbs of chips, being passed around between friends doesn’t stir up old friendly ghosts, you may not respond to the type of humour that lends Van Wyk, the Storyteller of Riverlea its local colour. This play, woven with the prose and poetry of Van Wyk (1957-2014) is about life, love, books and death in a country teetering on its own sense of self.
But alas, it’s a play bruised with too much love. When you love something so much that you want to celebrate it in a public way, you need the eye and the ear of someone outside of this deep love, not to curb it, but to ensure that you’re not allowing that love to blur the lines of a good work. While Meas’s performance is deeply endearing and beautifully passionate, there’s a moment in this play when you ponder why this joy in Van Wyk is, indeed, in the form of a play.
And there are several other moments in which you wish to avert your gaze from the sins of the set. At some point, you may find yourself wishing to shriek: “Stop the story, stop the tricks! Just allow me to taste these beautiful words which you utter so well: Just read the poems!”
And then, there is the set, which you can’t help but look at. Featuring an arbitrarily drawn map of Van Wyk’s childhood Riverlea, a Coloured township west of Johannesburg, on the floor, it feels undeveloped from the get-go. These drawings beg for stronger draftsmanship that is about the notion of chalk drawings from memories on a floor, and not about an easy interpretation of this kind of idea. There’s also a great big wooden construction in the middle of the set. It’s part desk, part audio-visual screen. Fair enough – but when the audio visual in question is projected onto a blob-like shape, and tired PowerPoint transitions are used between images, you know something’s amiss: this aspect of the set slips into a show-and-tell scenario, glibly denying the texture and border of old black and white photographs. This is a great pity. The idea has potential, but it hasn’t been pushed critically as far as it can go.
When you think of autobiographical tales told in the first person, Tony Miyambo’s Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri comes to mind. This potent tale is rich with internal rhythms reflecting on humour and tragedy, life and death, going backwards and forwards in remembering how one remembers. Similar to the intentions of this Van Wyk work. But alas, the latter lacks this internal assonance of its own, as a play.
Having said all of this, something still must be said for a play which triggers you to go scrambling amongst your book shelves to find a Van Wyk work – be it Shirley, Goodness and Mercy: A Childhood Memory (published in 2004), or any of the others – and to immerse yourself body and soul, in the beautiful, funny, sad observations of the man himself about the suburb he called home.
- Van Wyk: The Storyteller of Riverlea is written by Zane Meas and directed by Christo Davids. It features design by Christo Davids (set), Thapelo Mokgosi (lighting), Nthabiseng Mokone (costumes), and Cyril “Dafung” Peterson (music) and is performed by Zane Meas at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg until February 24. Call 011 832 1641.