In June, Gateway for Africa invited six of South Africa’s new generation of playwrights, for a discussion about South African theatre today, and how much has changed in the new South Africa. The discussion took place at The Royal Court Theatre which staged a reading of their plays to mark 20 years of democracy in South Africa since 1994 when the country chose Nelson Mandela to be the first black president, after over 50 years of struggle to end the country’s racist apartheid system. During the struggle, theatre was a key battleground of the struggle to end apartheid – a fact recognised by the repressive regime which banned and exiled many writers and artists. 20 years on, a new generation of South African playwrights both celebrate and interrogate the success of South Africa during this time.
Offering an insight into contemporary South African life and the urgent concerns of a younger generation two decades after the end of apartheid – the plays were presented as works-in-progress following a year long workshop led by British playwrights Leo Butler, Winsome Pinnock and International Director, Elyse Dodgson.
The six plays explored topics from absent fathers, political corruption, sexuality, race and religion in contemporary South Africa and the legacy of the new generation of children, growing up as ‘born frees’.The participating playwrights were Napo Masheane, Neil Coppen, Omphile Molusi, Mongiwekaya, Amy Jephta, and Simon Majola.
In our illuminating conversation led by award-wining playwright, Dipo Agboluaje the participating playwrights discuss their writing, the Royal Court Theatre’s international programme, and how much has changed for writers in the new South Africa.
Read the Transcript, or click below to listen to the Audio.
Dipo Agboluaje: The first question I’d like to ask maybe to you Mongi, is if you could set the ball rolling, is how has this experience been for you being part of this program?
Mongiwekaya: Wow, the program has been going for a year. So that’s a lot of interactions and surprising moments to pack in; But I think like the way in which Elyse Dodson who is the curator of this process opened up the workshop process when she said we’d like you to write and we’ve invited you 12 and she said “You’ve all brought a story but what I want you to do is to make sure that you’ve decided to tell this story because it challenges you because it scares you so we came in with ideas and that night before it said… so we all came in with an idea of what we wanted to do but the night of that we all gave it thoughts and we all came into the next day with an idea that we were already quite nervous about speaking about… I think that outlines how much risk taking this group has done in their work and made. That’s what’s given that importance or edginess to the work.
Dipo: So you were saying…
Mongi: Um, yea I mean so basically we were challenged to be daring and risk ourselves and because we risked ourselves I think that brought out these elements about South Africa, because they are our elements; they are issues that we have a connection to and I think that’s what it feels like… it feels like I’ve taken a risk and they’ve caught me and they’ve caught the idea and they’ve got it and they’re taking it you know? You always fear the other side which is it just not working or whatever, there’s all sorts of things to fear but there’s that one thing of when it works and when it comes together and it’s a gift to be able to work towards that kind of a space
Dipo: thank you, yes
Omphile: Yea, It’s interesting what Mongi is saying because the idea of taking risks is an interesting one which is something that I think all of us have kind of experienced in the whole process. I know with me when I came in I mean all of us we had a particular idea that we wanted to explore in the process. But the minute we came into we started the program; suddenly all of those exercises that we did with Winsome and Leo who were our…mentors just took us to a place in ourselves where we never thought we would go – and that just brought out a lot of personal stuff; or things that you had to deal with and things that questioned your voice as a writer and that influenced how you started your idea and how you started building your idea, and out of those exercises that we did, these ideas just started coming alive and what was beautiful about it as well was that we had a wonderful support structure. Everyone was there, throughout this whole process we sort of like became a family in a way; everyone was involved in everyone’s story, everyone was contributing to everyone story. It was like this is my life I want you all in it, this is your life I’m coming in it and that was interesting and just being here and seeing the final product that’s amazing
Dipo: Yea, that’s a question probably to further on from that to ask you Neil, what has it been like coming here? Is the second or third leg of the programme?
Neil: This is the third part of the programme and there are six other writers that are part of the process that are in South Africa too – so there’s 12 of us together in that workshop and development process – but coming here I was just trying to explain to someone today on skype, I think just talking about the difference here and writing is such an underrated art form at home obviously there is a great legacy in South Africa for writers and what it’s meant to change and democracy and all those kinds of things but play writing is considered kind of a hobby in South Africa. No one really thinks that’s what you do – and you come to Britain, and you come to the royal court and you realize it’s an industry here and there’s a huge network and support for that industry and the Royal Court, really this process has given us… most of the time we have to pull our stories out in a few months because you get funding and you have to have it on stage by this date… so you don’t actually go thought that wonderful development process and I think a lot of people are prolific at home but their stories don’t get to be nurtured or go through this gestation period where they can really develop and grow over a certain period of time with input, with readings, with rewrites, and all these sorts of things.
So to have been enabled that process by the royal court, this long development process has really I think enriched all the stories so much and continues to, I mean we still have another session back in South Africa in August so our plays are just works in progress right now they still go through their next.. and that constantly working and trying and discussions and conversations and really watching each other’s pieces so far and having conversations with each other every night, we’ve learned so much about these projects so it’s a real honour and I think we’ve spoken about this network and I Elyse Dodson at the head of it all in this process is just the most incredible sportive loving and understanding.. she understand what writers need, not many people do and she understands what makes great plays and how far and how much you have to push and she’s really pushed us out of our comfort zones and always been respectful of our stories, you know? And always being so respectful, never just coming with a British we know better and this is how u need to tell your story.. she’s really allowed these stories to breathe and become themselves, but just by making a safe environment and a consistent environment where we can checking with our mentors, bounce ideas around and also we know each other but not well enough this process has enabled 12 writers to get together and have a conversation
[Mongi interjects] about writing, not about directing other things but about writing and it’s pure self
Neil: because I think in South Africa there’s a big tradition of devising and theatre making where you don’t have a story but you get together and obviously Barnie Simon and Ngema and great things came out of that process and continue to but going back to the craft of writing has been a real treat for us.
Omphile Yeah, I think that’s the problem with South Africa, that culture’s not strong yet of writing, people are still more in the experience of devising than writing and so like what was amazing for me, even the people who were involved the actors, directors, they were just so excited about the program and I’ve never seen performers being excited about scripts, about texts, and that’s something that’s very rare for memean?
Dipo: Amy, would you like to add anything to that?
Amy: Yeah, I mean it’s just been very empowering to have our stories legitimised;
I think when you come to the royal court and your story is something so personal, and so particular to you and your history and to see it on an international stage you feel like my voice is legitimised because it’s here and for a long time I didn’t feel that a lot of the time back home; I didn’t feel empowered enough to write my own story because I thought well it’s just me, it’s just what I know but you realize the world and internationally, you’re hungry for South African stories and that the time is now for South Africa stories, that we are on the cusp of needing to tell these stories and there’s a contemporary wave of new African voices and it’s quite empowering to be a part of that and to know there’s something brewing here that we are going to be a part of for the next generation of South African theatre
Dipo: We have a late comer who I will not expose by naming her; so she’ll name herself and give us her own contribution about what this project… your response to this project and how it’s been for you?
Napo: My name is Napo Masheane; this time I’m a playwright… I’m also saying that because all of are not just playwrights we are directors, designers, we are performers but something unique about this process and what it has taught me is that it is okay sometimes to divide yourself and just be one particular thing.
It’s very hard in South Africa just be a playwright because half the time you’re a playwright and you automatically have to direct your show because of budgets, because of resources, because the industry is just different from here; so I think the biggest thing for me was to accept the fact that I’m not a director, that I am a playwright and that sometimes it’s okay to give your work away, as hard and painful as it is, it’s like almost you giving your child away to somebody and trust somebody with your child. So this process here at the Royal court has been amazing and a blessing and there’s been an element of huge growth to sit back which is not what we do, ya know? Back home we don’t sit back and watch we get involved so to be in rehearsal space and allow another director to take up and breathe life into your story on an international stage has been a huge blessing and the actors, the level of their professionalism of course, the beauty of people who don’t speak your language who don’t come from your background who don’t come from your culture or community who haven’t experience what we all have experienced or what we experience every single day of our lives, to have those people believe in your story and taking pride in your story and embody those characters, I mean what else can a playwright ask?
Dipo: yea, definitely. thank you – I just wanted to move on and start with you again Napo…I’m trying to gain what a contemporary theatre scene is like in south Africa and you did mention you’re more set the ball rolling when you gave your response in the fact that writers also have to be directors and that’s the reality? In a sense particularly through your own work and what you do I really love a personal response rather than a general response in terms of how you view contemporary theatre and contemporary writing because you mentioned that s well, if you could just talk about that please
Napo: Well in terms of the process, these kinds of projects and processes constantly one gets reminded that in the history of South African theatre women voices who were writers and playwrights has been minimal. I can count only a handful of us not even a handful.
Dipo: but back in the day you had writers like Fatima Dike…
Napo: But again still within that generation I can only count Fatima Dike and [inaudible] who were other black women in theatre writing – and when I go onto males you find a list of them ya know what I mean?; which also says there’s a sense of responsibility as a black woman I need to keep on writing these stories, so that the the younger generation they understand that it’s very important to also hear about politics, old and present you know South Africa politics form a woman’s perspective. Because our voices are different and we tell sorties in a different way, even if we talk about the same thing; so my thing has always been that it’s very important that I constantly without a choice write these stories and make sure that that young girl in a drama school and that young girl from a rural area in high school who’s been told that you’re too loud your too opinionated you question things too much why you questioning tradition why you questioning culture why are you talking about sexuality why are you into politics your place is somewhere else; that that young girl knows there is nothing wrong with her and the stage is big enough for her to shine and actually the world is waiting for her voice for her backyard from her kitchen table from the people that she reflects the world is waiting for her voice to be heard. So for me I feel like this is why contemporary theatre in South Africa is important coming from the voices of women as well.
Dipo: Thank you, Amy in terms of your own experience as a writer and the themes that you address, how would you say your role in South Africa theatre is?
Amy: For all of us, for all of these 6 plays, all the stories we tell are so specific to our own experiences and they are stories that are almost invisible and I do feel like Napo said, feel a great responsibility to tell those stories because of the community I come from on the Cape Flats, because of my family background, because of the weight of history; I feel like I have responsibility to tell those stories and another side of it is that I also feel a responsibility to instil a culture of being proud of language and proud of the written word that often like Neil said in South Africa we work a lot with devised and workshop theatre and the sort of respect forthe written word is all sort of underhanded so I think like by writing plays it’s empowering for myself especially from the community where I come, where illiteracy is still rife and I have a grandmother who could never read or write and still can’t to this day and I have family who never finished high school – to be the person who comes from my community, to be able to put down our experiences and our thoughts and our memories in words and on to the stage, yeah, I feel that responsibility is on me.
Dipo: so it’s still very much that sense of bearing witness giving testimony.
Napo: But also because we are both. All of us have tasted a bit of Apartheid, we’re part of transformation and change and we’re part of the new born, you know, the free borns, so constantly we are at the first of everything. The first talking about sexuality, the first talking about this, the first talking about that
Mongi: we are children of transition
Napo: we are children of transition that’s a huge responsibility right there
Neil: ‘Cause we’re not the born frees; all late 80s, so we all experienced, some of us obviously more closely than others, it definitely makes it interesting to be old enough to be aware, but not quite, to be a child processing that, and I think a lot of my work does that through child-like perspectives of trying to understand the political realm or dictatorships seen through a child’s eyes because you trying to make sense of that and yea it’s such an interesting time we grew up I think.
Napo: Which is also the beauty of this project, it’s so diverse… all of us come from different backgrounds from all parts of south Africa – it’s very hard to find projects that are as diverse as this and the support we give each other in our unique individual diverse voices
Omphile: you can see each and everyone’s voice in their own words and where they come from as well and I’m going to echo Amy as well; you become a writer because you have that sense of responsibility of giving a voice to your community; I remember when I was 13, 1993 I think it was; I’m not sure…that was the year before 1994, the elections, that big democracy in our country. I was just a boy and I remember I went to school that day and there were huge riots because people in the north-west where I come from were toy-toying; protesting [the] over throwing of Mangwope who was the president of Bophustwana Homeland at that time; so people were just burning all of the government buildings and anything that was associated with the government. And then comrades came to the school and told the teacher and principals that there would be no school today, we are talking out all of the children, and we were all excited; we didn’t know what was happening and comrades just took us and we were going around the township just burning stuff and throwing stuff; I didn’t know… I was just excited that all these things are happening… I remember there’s a huge shopping mall in our township where everyone just went in and just looted and we just took a whole lot of stuff and I was just excited and throwing things in my bag and just going home and my mom saying you must stay at home and I was like no mama the food is out there I’m going! I just went and I was just excited and there was a butcher shop there, people just running around with just half of a cow and for me after ‘94 when I look back I could understand the anger that people had against that system and why they were overthrowing it and they did that mainly because they were paving a way for our democracy for the new beginning, for the freedom and when I started out in theatre; I didn’t feel there was a need to say something about anything, when I started it was about entertaining people and people wanted to laugh it was a new democracy, and it was beautiful and all of that; but then I left the township and I went to the city and every time I went back to my township it was still the same. Politicians would come and promise people that that township that shopping complex you burned down, we are going to come back and build it and for years they’ve been coming and saying we going to build it and since 1993 that shopping complex is still in ruins. And every time I go back home, the township is still in ruins and nothing is changing and people are getting angrier and angrier and for me in 2001 the first professional play I saw was Asinamali with the original cast and that for me resonated so much and just inspired me to tell stories of my people, and of the community where I come from and that’s the kind of voice for me that I want to build as a South AfricaN playwright and also the idea that protest theatre is dead I don’t think so.
Napo: No, it’s not dead.
Mongi: It’s far from dead.
Napo: The strategy is different
Dipo: or is it more resistance theatre? Because I know going back to the old terminology during apartheid because protest was the kind of work Fugard wrote about but resistance was the kind a theatre people like Mayi Shemaponya and others wrote as well so is it a combo of both?
Napo: it is a combo of both. You are resisting against something, you’re questioning it but also you still highlighting and still pushing the struggle of things have not really changed. So it’s a constant question of every playwright, something has not changed but it’s just that the struggle is different; then it was A system now in our generation so many things and it’s some many structures that need to be dismantled. Even the simple things like people’s perceptions, people’s mentality – where we come from and where we live – because we so blessed that all of us are exposed to the world we know what the world out there is like so when we come home you become an outsider because you’re looking from the perspective of this is not the childhood that I had. Something along the way went wrong and I need to say something about this because it can actually get better…
Neil: I think personally for me, the mission is like, empathy cannot exist without imagination and we can really engage; what worked during the apartheid era and a mode of theatre making where it was really in your face and powerful and forceful but I think there’s a kind of reaction in South Africa because of history we come from and everyone is saying I don’t want to go to the theatre and be banged on the head by a newspaper for an hour: and watching Mong’is work and watching Napo’s work the other night and Omphile’s work and just seeing a beautifully told story where you can engage with these things but through a crafted brilliant story that really engages your intellect and your emotion and your empathy and I think that’s what’s so vacant from South African society; we’ve forgotten how to empathize with the others and really understand how you see things and I’ve been so moved by this week sitting in on everyone’s stories and just finding this new empathy again for these people these characters these stories on stage and I think that’s the power is that we can really allow people to step outside of themselves and inhabit someone else for an hour or two and really experience that story through them and I think if everyone started doing that and in a certain way that’s exciting me so much. I feel so kind of fired up from the few works I’ve seen this week
Dipo: The dynamics of apartheid was a lot to do with censorship and so the question I’d like to ask is whether there is now censorship of another kind?
So the question I want to ask now is about the actual politics and economics of writing of theatre in general – writing in particular and the question I want to ask is that we know during the apartheid era the issue then was one of censorship and the question I want to ask now is post-apartheid what are the politics of theatre/ the politics of writing in south Africa right now?
Neil: The majority of the national theatre are funded by government so naturally they’re not going to want very dissenting voices to come out of the money they’re putting in stories they want to focus on a very positive and they don’t want us to come to London and be very critical of government; no government wants that if they are putting money in something so I think inevitably there is “We can’t fund those sorts of projects that are critical so you have to find other ways to do it… and suddenly in the last year or two really, the stories I’m trying to tell and I’ve put into proposals are not going to fly with them and even if it’s about a character that has a different political belief, if it’s not the one with the prevailing party or government party then they’re not interested obviously in supporting that story even if it’s not a political story you’re trying to tell.
Just the fact, I mean I’m focusing on a Maskandi musician who is an Inkatha supporter who is from Northern KZN, and just that alone – just the fact that he voted Inkatha is enough to to say….I got a list sent to me by a theatre institution saying, please focus on
these maskandi musicians who were all ANC affiliated musicians; I do a lot of community projects too and in Dundee, Northern KZN, Sibongile up there, we wanted to work with a whole load of musicians from the community but the government department there said we had to work with their list of preferred musicians who are obviously affiliated with the party and I was starting to really see how this affects who get to speak and who get to play and who get to be seen and who doesn’t.
Napo: So its censorship but it’s a different censorship so you’re not going to be exiled out of the country or be told oh you performed that in London? Don’t come back. You are going to go home and believe you me, they keep tabs on all of us. You know some of us are on social media but just generally, you know you never know who is in the audience and not everybody who’s an audience is an audience, it’s a well-known thing so even if you’re not going to be asked to bring your script so that we cut lines, chances are you know other ways will be found [Neil: ]and your funding stops. Napo: Or you won’t find work.
Omphile: What we end up doing because you know we’ve come to tell a story and they don’t want your work; I mean when I did kaida I tried to put it on the market since 2008 and I went to Malcolm and Malcolm said yea, this is a beautiful story and if you change this and change that we will put it on, and I went and I rewrote and I went back to him with the script and he looked at me and read and said Yea well put it up next year in 2009. In 2009 about 3 months before it was supposed to be on, he came to me and I said you know the structure changed the theme of this year has changed, so let’s put you on next year 2010. I was like oh okay cool, and then the same thing happened 2011 and then that’s when I decided oh okay I can see what’s happening here, and then I started thinking alternative funding. Because it’s very hard with a story like that; my story was also like your, Maskandi, I was telling a story about my uncle and he was in the PAC; and ANC and PAC are just two opposites and it was difficult for them to just put it on and only when I did that play overseas was when I was then able to put it on at home. And I still just don’t understand why that is. And the problem I think with the censorship now as Napo says, its structural now because these theatres get government funding so it’s difficult for them to support the work hence the writer struggles in the long run and that’s why you always end up being an actor, or stage manager, director…
Napo: I think the funny thing is that, all of us as well established as we are in the industry and all of us we have an audience we will always be asked, you know there are other ways if it’s not money – it’s can you put bums on seats? So you’re constantly being made that you’re not good enough, that your story is not good enough, even if you know this is my truth; this is the truth, I reflect the experience of the people. You’re always being questioned. Personally I’ve always been upcoming; always developing; so you’re thinking, I can’t have the big venue because I’m not Phantom of the Opera? Anyway so you not that… you can’t fill up 500 seats and then you like okay fine 2 other venues are left which other venue can I take? Oh no you can’t take the one with 200 seats because we not sure you can fill it up. Oh go to the development, so there in development, you don’t have lighting you don’t have anything it’s just an empty box, so you go back to poor theatre.
Mongi: Welcome back to your bucket.
Omphile: So you end up having to do your shows in the township, in the communities because that’s where people will come.
Neil: I’m seeking funding from American and London England to try and get funding for the sort of stories you’re trying to tell, because it just doesn’t materialize so you have to try and find outside sources.
Mongi: right now, Its 20 years since our democracy and it’s the Grahamstown festival and barges festival
Napo: none of us are going. None of us are invited, not even one – so you can even imagine with our 12 stories – we don’t know what’s going to happen
Mongi: so there’s no writing; you know, It’s an incredible thing to have the Royal Court which is worldwide known and yet there is no set up within the space of the Grahamstown festival to go let’s just read the plays; let’s let the public read the plays and decide what they think; this is the new voices, 20 years and the main stage, which is where they put most of their money; you know, where they claim… you know the main stage we all know as artists that’s where you are revealed as a treasure of your country and all the stories that are up there, they’re not South African stories. So I find the whole politics game very unpleasant.
Napo: There’s a saying in my language that says a prophet doesn’t get praise from his/her own people; It came painful to realize that when you’re home, your village will not sing your praises until you get out of home and then another village far away when they start applauding you and singing for you, your good enough to come back home because you’ve been holding their flag.
Dipo: And on that note, I’ll just say thank you – it’s been a fascinating discussion and we could have gone on and on, and on.