THE FRISSON OF excitement at the start of a new play is in the air. The audience is exuberant but alert, as soon as the lights drop, silence prevails. And focus. The play begins. He walks on stage. And out of his mouth sprout words I do not understand. Is my evening ruined? Should I run out in high dudgeon? The performer has agonised over this work, he’s rehearsed, he might be nervous. What would happen if I stayed and listened?
The actor speaks isiZulu, but he does so with such a directness, with such body language and such engagement that even without a respectable knowledge of the language, you’re swept away in the current of the work. And as you stretch your mind and your focus to attempt to see what he’s doing, as you listen to the response of your fellow audience members who do understand, something remarkable happens. Actually two things happen.
Firstly you quickly gain some inroads into the language. The more you listen, the more you begin to recognise things. You recognise the names of characters. You recognise repeated elements in the story that lead to a climax in pace, in narrative. You begin to make assumptions about the prepositions in the language and the beauty of the sentence construction. And the use of timing. The props clearly represent different characters, and the dialogue with the props flesh these things out. It’s a very interesting – and humbling – exercise which is as much about seeing a work from the outside in, as it is about the idea of empathy.
Secondly, it’s a fascinating South African exercise. I do not understand isiZulu because I am white, because I was educated in the 1970s and 1980s during the thick intensity of apartheid, and because I was raised by a family who didn’t think it necessary for me to do so. And the years have passed and the enthusiasm it takes to learn a new language sits on a back burner.
Sitting in an audience where everyone is falling about with laughter at the tragicomic elements unfolding on stage and not being able to understand them is intensely disempowering, but it also puts you almost in the shoes of thousands and thousands of South Africans for whom English is maybe their eighth language, and their awareness of the nuances and asides you can conjure up in English might not be that strong. It’s a case of almost because most black South Africans without the privilege of an English-medium education who work in urban centres are able to use English as a tool, by necessity. Us locally-born whiteys managed to live for generations without the need to learn anything beyond, perhaps, Afrikaans, which was, in any case compulsory in the schooling curriculum.
Yes, given that English is generally the language of common parlance in Johannesburg theatres, it was remiss of the theatre in question not to have advised that the play is all in isiZulu. But having said that, had they done so, I would not have elected to see it. My Zulu is far from sufficiently sophisticated to understand the words, let alone the nuances of a play. And had I not seen the piece, I would not have encountered the focus and energy and intensity of Sifiso Zimba, a performer who I will be interviewing on this blog shortly.
So, what does this mean? I saw Apple, a piece by Zimba, directed by Omphile Molusi. I know Molusi’s work and have been following it for some years, which is why I elected to see the piece. I loved it, and I was moved to tears at points in it, but I didn’t understand why. Maybe I didn’t understand anything at all, and was simply influenced by the people around me. So, I cannot review it. But there are so many young South Africans who could.
The arts writing industry, thanks to social media and the apparent immediacy it presents, makes every person with a Wi-Fi connection and a keyboard able to tout their own opinions, no matter how foolish, biased or downright vicious they are. What lends art criticism credibility? Not the sensation or the glamour but the track record of the critic. So many young publications, or young editors, fall into this trap of getting people who know not what they do to voice a critical opinion on the arts, because with the current machinery of publishing, you can and it’s cool and trendy to give the next generation a chance.
Traditional art critics, who write not for that shimmer of sensationalism, but for the value they believe they give the industry, who go the extra mile in ensuring their criticisms are balanced and justified, are fast becoming a dying breed. Why? No jobs. No money. No interest.
But what happens when a young Zulu-speaking person in the audience reaches for her keyboard or pen to say something about this work? Whether she says it in English or isiZulu, suddenly something begins to turn on its axis. Maybe her theatre opinions need refining or justifying. Maybe she’ll shoot from the hip and voice an emotional opinion which feels raw. But the investment she will make of her time to do so, has the power to begin the momentum that will in time make that pendulum swing back.
And back it shall swing to a world of proper arts writing, but it shall swing with the added bonus of a respectful multiculturalism: an acknowledgement of the joys and horrors of how language can empower and can handicap you. A fantasy? Maybe. But one worth articulating. Congratulations to Wits969 for giving Apple, straight from the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, a platform.