THE SYMBOLIC POWER of the waiting room pervades an understanding of life itself. It’s a turbulent mix of helplessness in the face of some greater force, conjoined with the complex energy of an end crookedly and precariously in sight. Just out of focus, and around the corner, as it were. It’s the end of the wait that you’re there for, but what lies there? Freedom? The Devil you don’t know? The end of everything? This is one of the central premises of Michelle Douglas’s new play, Home Affairs, on the boards in the Memorial Hall at the Hilton Arts Festival, on 12 and 13 August.
It is here where we meet two hapless but pretty ordinary guys (Sello Ramolahloane and Lawrence Joffe) in a very long queue, where the chairs are scarce, the staff minimal and surly, and the toilets filthy. It’s a Beckettian queue for bureaucratic documents, and one which holds them captive. They need the documents. The ebbs and flows of power and people keep them in this space. And as such, it’s a classic prism for the South African situation, from loadshedding to corruption and ineptitude.
The work begins with jokes about power outages and leadership we can no longer look up to, let alone trust. They’re jokes which you know so well, they’ve lost their edge in the face of the fact that they no longer digress from the things we face all the time. They’re tired memes with no bite. But just before you may sigh with the same level of despondency that being in the South African contemporary world might give you, just before you switch off and digress into a total malaise, the work takes on a narrative energy which forces you to sit up straight and look not only into yourself, but also at the audience members around you.
Films of the ilk of Oliver Hermanus’s 2019 film Moffie took a glance at the horrors of being a white South African at the meeting point of youth and a horrendous state of political antagonism. Works of the nature of Phillip Miller’s 2008 Rewind, a Cantata for Voice Tape and Testimony and Omphile Molusi’s Cadre, to name but a few, examine a different face of South African pain. What Douglass does here, and succeeds with great cogency, is to conflate stories and set the stage afire with dialogue that dips into counterpoised monologues. The 1980s may have held nascent dreams and youthful fantasies if you were white and schooled in Sandringham, Johannesburg. They might not have, if you weren’t.
Replete with an angry denouement which grabs you in the audience by your guts, this beautifully performed work offers a rich whirligig of ordinary domesticity wrapped in an existential tale within a smelly office underscored by the grime of neglect and the boring misery of lumpen bureaucracy. Structurally, it reaches beyond the confines of something grim and dire and into the unknown in a way that gives you curious, meaty solace. And in a strange way, it also gives you hope, in the face of the messy robustness of being human. Something we all need.