Bra Gib warrants more

Kente

AN UNDERSTANDING OF the contribution of South African theatre-maker Gibson Kente (1932-2004) to local stage history cannot but be an important addition to the reading list of any SA theatre lover. And accordingly, Robert Mshengu Kavanagh’s book A Contended Space tries hard to be everything to every reader with these priorities in mind. Sadly, he makes so many promises in this book that it is the legacy of Kente himself that ends up being compromised.

Arguably, Kente’s vision was central to the amorphous beast we recognise as SA township musical theatre. It vies from a European avant-garde reflection on narrative, audience and other formalities and weaves into the ideas of performance espoused by German 20th-century theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht. It’s independent and unapologetic, playing to majority audiences and influencing many significantly. Kente, who was a contemporary of writers such as HIE Dhlomo, RRR Dhlomo and Sam Mhangwane, penned political theatre at its richest.

“No”, shouts Kavanagh, arguing that there is a difference between political theatre and theatre for the people. And he’s entitled to his opinion. The thing is, whether you feel Kavanagh’s definition of political theatre is too wide or too narrow, becomes academic: the book is so riddled with writing errors you emerge feeling battered even if you’re a champion of Kavanagh’s approach.

The first great sin in this book is the omission of an editor (whose brief is the content’s flow) and a sub-editor (who fixes grammar, spelling, consistency and style). Instead, you get visual errors, spelling errors, errors in the language’s flow and errors in repetition that make what could have been a beautiful and informed read, tortuous.

This reflects a shoddy understanding of the final product: A Contended Space is not a blog post which can be fixed anytime: it’s the fruit of years of work. It bears the stamp of a publishing house. It’s meant to last forever. The least you deserve, as the reader, is attention to the visual presence of the thing to say nothing of the focus of the language.

And alas, as you feel roughly trod on by this book’s errors, so are you are offered promises which do not deliver: Examples plunge into too much detail too quickly, leaving your head spinning in an inchoate understanding of Kente’s work and influence.

Other detail is skirted around. When mention is made of an “Israeli who penned a play called Sola Sola”, for instance, you might be curious to know the name of this person, but nay, ‘tis lost among lots of facts.

Indeed, on the topic of facts in this book, expect to be assailed by them in the form of shopping lists. Armies of them. Pages and pages of references to plays with their dates of performance are shoved before your eyes – so many examples that the basic assertion they illustrate is lost. There is insufficient use made of footnotes in this material.

And all of this happens before you reach the focus on Kente himself. Indeed, you’re subject to four sections (that’s 11 chapters) describing what Kente is not. Granted, you do, eventually get to read his context, but this happens after more than 100 pages of comparison, contemporaries and other asides. One or two well-placed tweaks in the flow of this books focus would have turned it around.

Try as you might to go head to head with the density of the text, the third hurdle you encounter is voice. The writing slips between third and first person all the time. Yes, it’s a problem when the verb tense of the material is inconsistent; the casualty is clarity. But when suddenly Kavanagh himself pops into the thus far formal descriptive, historical narrative as a character – be it as someone in Kente’s audiences, or a fellow playwright in a given programme, festival or season – something else happens: it’s no longer clear who this book is written for or what it aims to be.

Is it an academic overview of Kente, the man and his work? If so, why is there a comment that goes “I’ll bet my bottom dollar that Kente’s house was robbed”? Betting of bottom dollars or clichés of this nature sit curiously with academic writing principles. Maybe A Contended Space is an informal overview of the man and his work, plus the author and his work? Maybe. This feels kind of in line with the crusading lines Kavanagh takes, writing about “white” and “black” theatre, and reflecting upon the injustices of apartheid in a reductionist capacity.

Wade through this and toward the end of the book, you will be rewarded with detailed readings of several key Kente works, including Lifa, How Long, Too Late and Sikalo. Here, you may want to heave a sigh of relief, but alas the problem doesn’t end: Kavanagh plunges head first into character analyses, offering great chunks of quoted text from the plays in question; he doesn’t really explain why. Is this book meant to be a textural analytic tome? Maybe, but it doesn’t do this convincingly.

The book’s final sin is the dismissal of the principle of ‘show and tell’ in the writing. Kavanagh tells you things about apartheid, about the challenges of theatre in the 1970s in South Africa, about Sharpeville, without showing you the broader trajectory. If you don’t know the basics of the history, you may well feel abandoned in a morass of roughly sketched scenarios.

But there is light at the end of this tunnel: the further into this book you read, the more developed its approach becomes, but you have to steel yourself against its focuslessness quite heftily. Ultimately, you emerge with a modicum of appreciation of the giant Kente was, but it’s a messy read, which could have been a fine contribution to Kente scholarship, under a good editorial pen.

  • A contended space: The theatre of Gibson Mtutuzeli Kente by Robert Mshengu Kavanagh is published by Themba Books, Harare, Johannesburg, Cairo, London (2016).
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The super spy you love to hate

spy

YOU WILL BE hard-pressed to pause in Jonathan Ancer’s critical biography of one of apartheid’s most notorious spies, Craig Williamson, once you start reading. From the start, this book presents a fully-fleshed terrifying character who is at once a blend of John le Carré-like intrigues mixed with ethical and deeply South African ponderables. It’s a meaty read, but one that will sweep you off your feet as you hear your pulse roar in your ears and feel your heart bleeding for the family of Williamson’s victims.

Notorious high apartheid spy, Williamson (b. 1949) was always big. He was also always something of a bully, but furthermore something of a wily strategist. Not a stupid man, but one with a fraught understanding of moral and human values, he was perfect grist for the apartheid goverment’s mill. Blend all this with time in the South African Police service, an offer under the table by the powers that were and the volatility of anti-apartheid tensions at their angriest peak, and you have a recipe for someone unstoppably lethal in the context that formed him.

Is the man an unmitigated psychopath? Is he the embodiment of quintessential evilness? Is he a manifestation of what political theorist Hannah Arendt describes as the banality of evil in her thoughts about Nazi Adolf Eichmann? Is Williamson a man who should be allowed to hide behind an avuncular image in contemporary times, or should his demons be exposed for all the world to see? Maybe he should be seen as simply one of apartheid’s foot soldiers? A man who was in the right – or wrong – place, at the right – or wrong – time? Ancer writes around these issues with simple journalistic brilliance. His work is crisp and to the point and while it is unapologetically in the first person, it never stumbles into being self-congratulatory.

As a result, you have a book which is unequivocally important for an understanding of the South African narrative. It’s very far from being a simple angry bruising attack on a man, or an academic treatise. Rather, it is alive with the words and opinions of sources, as it uses acute and careful descriptions of Williamson’s life and times, based on exhaustive research, to serve as a cipher to give his victims the fleshed out dignity they warrant.

For instance, we get to meet Neil Aggett, a medical doctor who was headlined as having died in detention in 1982. A victim. Ancer reflects him as a man with his values intact and his brave sense of priorities refined and honed, before the apartheid regime broke him into a million tiny shards.

Jenny Schoon (nee Curtis) and her six-year-old daughter Katryn have oft been similarly relegated to the footnotes of a contemporary understanding of the great ponderous beast of apartheid history. Ancer brings her sense of humour, her beautiful friendships and her values into the frame, reflecting potently on who she was, as a librarian, a wife, a reader, a Yeoville resident, before she was rendered a bloody statistic by a parcel bomb in the early 1980s, with little Katryn.

Ruth First, the wife of Joe Slovo, who too was slain by a Williamson-driven parcel bomb in the 1980s, is also pivotal in an understanding of his brutality and is, too, presented as a real person, with fears and priorities, who loved and believed, who wore a white skirt on that fateful day.

By and large, Williamson kept his hands clean and got others to do his dirty work. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he rose through the structures of Wits University student politics and was up there with the National Union of South African Students’s leadership, cosying up with the thinkers and opinion-makers, listening, waiting, disclosing, betraying … and shocking myriads when he was revealed as a spy and then rapidly defected to the ‘other side’ of aggressive South African politics.

It’s a well-structured and balanced work which should be a must-read for the generation that’s coming of age, as we speak. Without being didactic or formulaic, it explains how binaries of black and white/good and evil are meaningless as it offers insight into the rich and messy texture of apartheid that is vital for any South African, or anyone wishing to know more about an era soiled with political assumption and legislated hate.

  • Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson by Jonathan Ancer is published by Jacana Media, Johannesburg (2017).

Everything you ever wanted to know about crime, but were too afraid to ask

crime

IT INFILTRATES OUR very existence – from the way in which we conduct ourselves in life, to the literature we read, the misconceptions of others we indulge in and the sensationalism that it smears across a world of broken dreams. The concept and reality of crime, that is. And with this reflection on the all-pervasiveness of it, the Comaroffs’ latest publication The Truth About Crime is unputdownable, but not for the conventional reasons. This foray into the complexities of crime, particularly in a South African context comes under the intense focus of quintessential seasoned sociologists Jean and John Comaroff; while you will not emerge with one gleaming “truth” which reflects “solution”, you will have a rollercoaster of a read.

Academic writing is a curious thing. Fraught with many rules of accreditation and checks and balances, it can be immensely dry and formulaic. Combined with old-fashioned hard work and rigorous intelligence, it can surpass the value of any bit of fiction, even yarns well-written. And this is what you get here: an intense, oft witty, detailed and wise explication on stories that go bump in the night, about real people. The text is dense but it flows with a mellifluousness that makes you want to read it out aloud. The Comaroffs play with sounds and idioms, with parables and metaphors as they knit together associations and perceptions, book research and field work.

While they do manifest a tendency to use terms like the ancient regime as a reflection on apartheid, which might not necessarily always be contextually meaningful to most readers, and you obviously need to bypass the in-text references if you’re just an ordinary reader and not an academic, these are minor digressions that cannot even be seen as inconveniences. The text is divided into two parts – the first offers insight into the historical dynamics of modernity and its interface with policing, the order of things, and the economy of representation; the second looks at the other side of crime dynamics, the mythostats and the kangaroo courts, the witch hunts and the alternative methods designed and marketed to keep crooks out of your stuff, including the fake ivy product on the contemporary South African market called Eina!

Stories pepper the text, from the big headline events that saw Oscar Pistorius attempt to use white fear as a foil to explain the violent death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, to more low key ones that sometimes don’t make it to headlines, but are nevertheless no less complex and disturbing. These include the 50-year-old hairdresser in the Western Cape willing to sjambok any miscreant to death in the name of social justice. They’re stories told with a great deal of levity, accessible facts and balance, leading you through the Comaroffs’ focus by the proverbial hand.

Indeed, the book touches on all the bits and pieces that comprise our society, and there are moments in which you will feel as though you’re reading a South African manifestation of Michel Foucault, touching as it does on so many elements that point to the basis of power in our society. But it is not the last word in crime. It’s not a how-to text that offers you insight into where you should go to protect your body, your loved ones and your life from being hurt by others. But it doesn’t pretend to be.

You emerge from this heady read with a whole lot of stories that you won’t forget in a hurry. You emerge with an enlarged sense of context as to the huge catchall that may be understood as criminal behaviour – from the draconian rules and appalling legalism applied by the apartheid regime, to the values of the 1990s Muslim organisation People Against Gangsterism and Drugs that was headlined in the Western Cape. It’s a book that will stand proud and well-thumbed on any reader’s bookshelf – over and above the mandatory university library and syllabus for which it is designed.

  • The Truth About Crime: Sovereignty, Knowledge, Social Order by Jean Comaroff and John L Comaroff is published by Wits University Press (2017).

Big fish, conjured

OldMan

MAN of war ahoy! Manolin (Taryn Bennett) and crew (James Cairns and Jaques de Silva) cast out to sea. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

THERE ARE FEW things as gratifying as a spot of Hemingway to pepper up a dull Johannesburg evening with a bit of culture, but this is Hemingway as you could never have anticipated him. One of this country’s most exciting repertory theatre groups, under the pens of Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott have created a gem of a work that will make you laugh and cry, sailing gloriously and with great skill on the coattails of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Even if you don’t like – or know – modernist literature.

Like their production of the Snow Goose, a few seasons ago, the work hinges more on accounts of the incident rather than the incident itself, but in doing so, not one iota of the texture and the fabric of the tale is compromised, and a whole sea replete with the greatest challenge of an old fisherman’s lifetime, and a humble village of loyal friends, is cast in a simple framework with a turning set, put together with a couple of planks, a log and a table, and some incredibly fine masks and very simple puppets.

It’s a curious novel. On the one hand, celebrated as arguably among the most important novels of the modern era, The Old Man and the Sea (1951) is an example of short, tight writing at its peak. You can read it in a few hours, but still the monumental struggle between big fish and small man becomes almost biblical in its largeness. It contains a parable similar to tales such as Moby Dick, which gives you something to take home with you – about old age, mortality and the challenges of being in the world.

And you might wonder what a group of contemporary South African theatre makers can do with a work of such historical gravitas and serious reputation. Rest assured that you’re safe in the hands of Jaques de Silva, Taryn Bennett and James Cairns, who take apart this great classic with immense bravery and chutzpah, but also an incredible amount of intelligence and skill. The gravitas remains, but is woven into a texture of village life that is rich with humour and tall stories, earnestness and dominoes.

The story is fleshed out with characters such as Manolin, the young boy who Santiago, the old man in question has been training in his boat, but also the village fishermen who tell the incredible tale of a man who went out for the biggest fish of his life, and came back with a story. Indeed, this production reinvents the textures and love affairs, the humour and the pathos of this unnamed fishing village.

Flavoured with songs of the ocean, and sutured together with mime that harnesses a very real sense of magic, the work is truly a brilliant experience: it is beautifully honed and tells a clear story with a very big fish (and an even bigger heart).

  • The Old Man and the Sea is adapted for stage by Nick Warren, based on the eponymous novel by Ernest Hemingway. It is directed by Jenine Collocott and features creative input by Jenine Collocott (production design), Sue Grealy (music), Alida van Deventer (puppetry), Alistair Findlay (set) and Steve Clarke (sound). It is performed by Taryn Bennett, James Cairns and Jaques de Silva at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until October 7. Call 011 883 8606 or visit www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Forbidden fruit that haunts

Die Reuk van Appels_images by Sanmari Marais_-34

THE horror, the horror: Gideon Lombard is Marnus Erasmus, peeking through a hole in his knotty pine floor. Photograph by Sanmari Marais.

WRITING IS A messy business. It’s a mixture of grammar and correctness, of rhythm and texture, of perspective and controversy. But occasionally it can be so devastatingly lucid that a scene read more than 20 years ago, can still haunt. Irrevocably. Bruisingly. It takes a truly remarkable team of performers and creative people, however, to take something as earth-shatteringly powerful as this in a novel, and to bring it to stage, no less haunting than it appeared on those pages so many years ago. This is precisely what happens in Die Reuk van Appels.

This apartheid-centric tale of propaganda and betrayal, keeping up appearances and the falteringly naive yet fierce understanding of an 11-year-old boy of life, the universe and everything, was originally penned by Mark Behr in both Afrikaans and English, both published in 1993. It rocked the literary equilibrium at the time. Not only for how beautifully it is crafted but also for the unpopular narrative it contains. What does it mean to be a white man, raised — and brainwashed — to understand your pre-eminence in a country, because of your skin colour, only to discover that you’ve been on the side of prime evil, all along? And that it is your own flesh and blood that is the enemy?

Based on the Afrikaans version, this astutely directed and simply brilliantly performed work, is set to turn contemporary local theatre making inside out as it unremittingly focuses on issues as complex and messy as inexplicable hatred, an understanding of who hell is for and why, and an engagement with complicity that hurts.

The bravery and importance of this flawless play that doesn’t stint on describing the appalling horror of an apartheid mindset, cannot be understated. The value of theatre of this nature cannot be overstated, not only in terms of method, but in terms of the multitude of young voices which need to be heard in this country, in Afrikaans as much as in any other language.

Gideon Lombard plays Marnus Erasmus, as he spins a yarn around his family, the South African Defense Force, the mystery of taboo, the surrealness of awful memories and the horror of disappointment. The script is populated with characters from his father, a general in the South African army, to his mother, a wannabe contralto; his sister Ilse and his best friend, Frikkie. Not to forget a sinister character called “John Smith”, who is exotic yet undefined.

Armed with a spinning top and a floppy army hat, an army-issue water bottle, a loose rug on the floor and a military uniform eerily hanging in the air, Lombard embraces that pristine and sparkling element of childhood innocence with wisdom that forces you to understand the character from within and without. More than anything, the work is an indictment on a particular type of Afrikaner mindset at the height of apartheid, from 1974, and its unequivocal (yet superficial) hard-edged moral clarity, which believed that the land was theirs thanks to God. In being so, it offers insight into the agony of hypocrisy as witnessed and stomached by a child.

It’s a difficult play to watch, but an impossible work to drag your attention from, as it begins. And yes, the State Theatre is an appalling ordeal to visit, with its ghastly little artworks hanging in the foyer’s corners and the ups and downs of long corridors that you have to traverse to get to the venue. They still reek of neglect and poor design, of feeble attempts to reposition politicised gestures and statues, but as you get into the space and the play’s sound track punctuates your universe, you forget – and forgive – everything. This play will grab you by the throat and not leave space for anything else.

  • Die Reuk van Appels (The Smell of Apples) is reworked for stage by Johann Smith, based on the eponymous novel by Mark Behr (1993). Directed by Lara Bye, it features creative input by Kosie Smit (lighting), and Lara Bye and Gideon Lombard (set). It is also performed by Gideon Lombard. Limited to no under 16s, as it features sex and nudity, violence and prejudice, it performs at the Momentum Theatre, State Theatre complex in Pretoria until September 24, at Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom on October 3-7: https://aardklop.co.za/; and at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town from October 17-November 11: thefugard.com

Angry black womxn

collectiveamnesia

THE FACT THAT this anthology of poems has to date sold over 2 000 copies, according to its publisher, attests to the need for inflammatory words of this nature, couched as they are, in the conventions of poetry and uttered by a young person – Koleka Putuma was born in 1993 and is an individual who wields the term ‘womxn’ with conviction and isn’t afraid to do so. It doesn’t however, mean that the work is completely flawless.

Peppered with incredibly beautiful and dangerous turns of phrase that shreds violence into laughter and duct tapes screams with staples, the 51 poems in this anthology take on the monster of memory: memory of being black and poor and a child, memory of the knowledge of violence perpetuated – against women, against queers, by religious values, by relatives – and memory that turns over the challenges of making sense of one’s body, one’s supporters and one’s terrors.

Unashamedly constructed in the first person, the work embraces everyone’s values and the popular political/cultural/historical references are as much about today and tomorrow as the newspaper or the internet might be. Indeed, the political edge is the nub of these works, which don’t claim to be poetic in the romantic sense, but pour themselves from Putuma’s keyboard into your sensibilities almost seamlessly.

The work is, however, slightly marred by subbing errors and a kind of self-conscious concreteness, where you see bullets used in the construction of a poem, words deleted, or words printed very lightly on the page. These render imminently readable poems into rubrics and games, and flaw the flow of the material, sometimes rendering them more list-like than poem like. But there are wordless poems in this anthology which vie with this kind of gimmick remarkably, raising them in astuteness and sophistication.

The work ‘Storytelling’, for instance, is footnoted: “How my people remember. How my people archive. How we inherit the world”, but it otherwise comprises a blank page, hits with a resounding force of devastating eloquence.

All these elements considered, Putuma is a voice to take notice of. Like the angry young men who populated early European Modernism, the proverbial fist she raises in fury and protest against the crooked way in which the world turns, for the voiceless people who live, love and die often ignominiously and anonymously, and against the heft of radical religious beliefs which can break the relationship between a parent and his homosexual child.

You may not have been schooled to read poetry – indeed, it remains the one literary form which still nurses a bad deal in terms of readability. But once you begin the foray into Collective Amnesia, it’s not only the way in which collective memory is thwarted and made to trip up by the universe that will grab you. Read aloud or not, the work flows rapidly, and the shifts and turns in Koleka’s focus horrify and traumatise you as they take you through forbidden sexual climax and into the realms of sexual violence. In short, you can read this cover to cover, or dip into it at will. But be warned: it’s angry poetry, unrelentingly premised on political assumption and the fire of youth.

  • Collective Amnesia by Koleka Putuma is published by uHlanga, Cape Town (2017).

Read this while it’s hot

Unpresidented

US PRESIDENT DONALD Trump invented the word “unpresidented” through his sloppy hold on the English language. He gave credence to the notion of alternative facts through his sloppy hold on ethics, and our very own President Jacob Zuma took the ball and has run with it, offering some of the most splendid material that contemporary humorists can cherry pick to create some of the most biting, hilarious and hard hitting comedy you can imagine. On this wave of impossible, yet real madness, Paige Nick has written Unpresidented which tears strips off current affairs, making you laugh in spite of the ugly way in which South African has been broken by “Number One”.

She niftily yet fairly obviously skirts around facts, constructing a “Muza” and a family of corrupt “Guppies” around the tale, characters who, so replete with grotesquely juvenile behaviour and naively dangerous repartee that you almost become fond of them, stripped, as they are, to reveal their silly bravado, grotesque understanding of the truth and utter inadequacy as adults. Nick pulls no punches in crafting characters who are believable in a comic book type of scenario: the most delicious being Bonang and Refilwe, the two remaining wives of Muza, who have used his time in jail to start new businesses for themselves and commandeer the ex-President’s former office.

It’s 2020, and Muza, the now ex-President of South Africa, has had his jail sentence reduced to house arrest on the compassionate strings pulled by an ingrown toe nail. A shamed journalist guilty of alternative facts in the telling of a story about a cancer patient, has landed the job of writing Muza’s memoirs, only the fallen icon in question has this annoying tendency to lie in such a bald-faced manner that the journo, a chap flawed by his own inadequacies and an overprotective, innocently racist mom, is utterly stymied. Add to the mix a Malawian drug dealer who gets a kick out of using Jewish slang, a series of double-double-crosses involving showerheads and lots of drugs, a couch stuffed with lots of money and a Homestead which has gone to wrack and ruin and you’ve a fabulous plot that will keep you riveted.

This fantastic tale of complicit behaviour, crooks which are almost too sillily villainous to believe (until you cast your eye back at the news), fashion design and tindering wives is a quick and delightful read which will have you in stitches, and there are passages in this material that are so perfectly made, they leap from the pages. It’s the kind of easy companion on the beach or commute, and it’s a refreshing take on a sordid state of affairs.

It makes reference to many scenarios which have trotted themselves out before our very eyes in the last few months, but doesn’t offer context and assumes that the reader knows the true horror of the situation to which South Africa has been privy. For this reason, it’s imperative that you read it now, while everything’s still simmering in the pot of misinformation, alternative facts and blatant shameless hustle.

Unpresidented: a Comedy of Errors by Paige Nick is published by N&B Books (2017), sales and distribution by www.bookstorm.co.za and www.booksite.co.za