THE GROUND THAT you think is firm enough to hold you and your history and values may not be as solid or kind to you as you think. Or hope. It’s a concatenation of ghosts, of the detritus of dead buried there and of the messy issues associated with land ownership. You never really know when it will swarm up and shift and catch you by the solar plexus. When you approach a plot of land, you come with your biases streaming and screaming in your wake. These are the kinds of issues central to Nadia Davids’s searing play, What Remains.
The initiative of Wits University Press to publish the play, which started to evolve under Davids’s pen in 2014, is an important gesture. It gives the transience of the work a permanence which is both vital and evocative. Plays like this need to be held in one’s hands, one’s consciousness and one’s heart and not only experienced on the stage, when the industry has the wherewithal to honour it thus.
And it’s a tale about bones that will not be buried forever, as it offers a gloss on slavery’s history and where generations after generations of people fit into a grand narrative. Davids employs the thoughtful device of using nouns rather than character names to define the characters in the work – The Student, the Archaeologist, the Healer, the Chairwoman, the Dancer – and this lends a clarity and a universality to the work which is compelling and not moored in the idiosyncrasies of crafted individual characters.
Interestingly, the work also includes notes by the play’s original choreographer, Jay Pather. And while on some levels, this is about rendering an understanding of the work as a cohesive whole which is as much about poetry as it is about dance and atmosphere, on other levels, it hurts this publication. This is because the descriptions feel rooted in their own sense of evocation rather than hold onto the candidly prescriptive. Muscling into what a published text of a play should be, they edge into the aspect of poetry which feels like they are upstaging the other instructions in the play, vying for your attention, as you read (or watch) the work.
In addition, in the front of the text, there is a body of 16 photographs by John Gutierrez, from the first performance of the work. They’re printed small and not at a very high resolution, which lends you a postage-stamp black and white blurred understanding of the work in performance, and are not justified or valuable in the presence of the publication. If you didn’t see that particular version of the play, these grainy grey images do nothing for you at all, rather than represent a quick page turning exercise to get to the heart of this important and muscular text that offers a sting in its tail which will raise the hairs at the back of your neck – and the fibres holding your heart in thrall.
What Remains: A Play in One Act by Nadia Davids with notes on the choreography by Jay Pather is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg (2019).
This play is the 2020 recipient of the English Academy of Southern Africa Olive Schreiner Prize for Drama