In Review

South Africa as a Work-in-Progress

By Amy Nora Long

The bright lights of Broadway often blind us to origins of theater, but for the ancient Greeks, drama had a responsibility to the public to educate and foster debate on issues vital to the health of the polis. In turn, every citizen had a civic duty to attend the theater.

In January 2005, the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge kicked off the new year by exploring the post-apartheid era in South Africa with a festival of plays, films, and dialogues that marked the country’s first decade of democracy. The month-long festival centered around three South African playwright-performers, each of whom shared a personal perspective on the past, present, and future of a nation in transition.

The Syringa Tree, written and performed by Pamela Gien, is a fictional story based on her childhood in South Africa under apartheid. Her journey to come to terms with her past and her self-imposed exile is impressionistic, as she slips between memories as deftly as she transforms from one character to another. Gien acts out all of the play’s 24 roles, shifting between a wildly diverse cast of characters, using only her voice and her body to indicate the change. “It was never my intention to perform it alone,” Gien said recently. “It was [acting coach and director] Larry Moss’s great vision for the piece and is the true meaning behind the play. If we are all equal, then the body doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who is bringing those characters to life. Every age, every race, every religion can live within one physical body.”

Gien, a native English-speaking white South African, is reluctant to label her play as “political”; rather, she prefers to think of it as a play about family. “I hope the play is a human experience,” she said, “not a political experience.” The two are not mutually exclusive, however. The play subtly investigates questions of individual responsibility in an unjust society through a careful juxtaposition of scenes. For example, after learning that the black servants make porridge from the soured milk and leftovers they are given by their “benevolent” employers and later that this porridge often leads to terrible illness, we are confronted with the lady of the house offering leftovers to her children’s nannies. The story is told by a six-year-old, white, English-speaking South African, Elizabeth, whose wide-eyed innocence exposes the hypocrisy of her contradictory world. The occasional admonitions from our young guide to follow the rules (“You can’t go in there,” she warns, “You need a special paper to go in there”) are undeniably chilling. A society policed by even its children is abominable, a point the plot makes not by preaching but through representation of actual events in Gien’s life.

Gien, like Elizabeth, had difficulty reconciling the anger and hurt she felt for her home. “For a long time,” she said, “whenever anyone would talk about South Africa with me, I would become angry and confused and upset in the conversation and I just couldn’t understand why I was in this sort of state about a place that I clearly loved and cared so deeply about.” In developing The Syringa Tree, she was finally able to confront her grief and has helped others do the same. Gien has received an overwhelming response from the expatriate community, grateful to her for sharing their story.

John Kani’s play Nothing But the Truth also explores the dynamic between the exile and his home, but from the perspective of a brother who stayed. Kani, South Africa’s most famous actor, wrote the play to come to terms with the death of his brother, who was shot by police while reciting a poem at the funeral of a young girl killed in a riot. As the play developed, the focus of the story shifted from Kani’s brother to one of the thousands of people who contributed to the struggle without ever receiving individual recognition. “I thought I would use this play to pay tribute to that man,” Kani said. “I wanted to pull him out of the crowd, give him a face, give him a name.”

The man pulled from the crowd and placed on the stage’s domestic setting is the assistant chief librarian at the Port Elizabeth Public Library, Sipho. He waits with his daughter, Thando, for a decision on his promotion to chief librarian and the arrival of his niece, Mandisa, with the remains of his brother who died in exile in London. Neither event turns out as he hoped. Even in death, his brother is a hero of the struggle and Sipho, hardworking and loyal to his family, cannot compete. The play uses sibling rivalry to explore the complicated relationship between those who left South Africa and those who remained. Their relationship is mirrored by the women in the play, identified as sisters in the African traditions who in turn represent the clash of cultural differences.

Thando is a modern South African woman steeped in tradition; she obeys her father and her own mind. She works as a translator for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and firmly supports the process. Mandisa is a fashion designer in London, where she was born and raised. The transportation of her father’s remains marks her first trip to South Africa and, despite having grown up in an expatriate community, her Western upbringing is apparent. After attending an amnesty hearing with a controversial verdict, the women engage in a heated debate about the TRC’s merits and limitations. The TRC, led by Nobel Prize-winning Archbishop Desmond Tutu, began in 1995 as a peaceful way to respond to the massive atrocities committed during apartheid and to begin the process of reconciliation within the country. The commission had three committees: the first investigated human rights violations, the second assisted with victim reparations and rehabilitation, and the third considered applications for amnesty for those accused of politically motivated violence. Mandisa echoes international criticism that the process lets criminals off the hook, while Thando defends the TRC as the humane alternative: “We have a country to rebuild. . . .Where would revenge get us except more violence?” The play, while a family drama, reflects the issues facing the nation today. Reconciliation, as Kani illustrates, is a slow process but remains South Africa’s best chance at peace and stability.

The play premiered in Johannesburg at the Market Theatre, a converted produce market, which made its name at home and abroad by staunchly opposing and criticizing the apartheid regime by creating an open forum for drama, dialogue, and debate. It was one of the few places where black and white South Africans could legally commingle. Before 1994, those artists involved with the Market Theatre, like many others, felt an obligation to the struggle, and all of their art centered on it. “The day Nelson Mandela was released from prison, 30,000 plays had to be burned because they still called for his release,” Kani often joked. After the end of apartheid, the direction for artists of the struggle seemed uncertain, but as Nothing But the Truth testifies, there will always be a need for a voice of the people.

The third production in the festival, Foreign Aids, was considerably smaller in scale than the other two productions. With a flag and some crates full of wigs and costumes, South African satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys explored “the ‘mock’ in Democracy and the ‘con’ in Reconciliation.” Uys is famous throughout South Africa for his character Evita Bezuidenhout, the Afrikaner wife of a fictional member of Parliament and self-proclaimed “most famous white woman in South Africa.” Through Evita, Uys began satirizing the apartheid regime nearly 20 years ago. With apartheid dead, the performer takes aim at a new catastrophe: the aids crisis. His rage at the current government’s criminal passivity resonates through-out the piece, but Uys’s arsenal lies in his humor. “In the old days,” he tells the audience, “we would laugh at our fear to make it less fearful. So, that’s what I do now.”

Like Gien, Uys invokes a host of characters, political, historical, and fictional, to tell his stories. Unlike Gien, Uys utilizes props, costumes, and makeup to transform into his characters before the audience’s eyes. Major political figures are broken down into iconographic minutiae; Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu consists of a purple dress, a wig, and a handful of rings, while Bill Clinton is nothing more than a wig and a tie. These onstage transformations have become integral to his performance, but they originated out of necessity. In the “old days” Uys’s scathing criticism made him rather unpopular in some circles and the stage became one of his few safe havens. To avoid the risk of being attacked in his dressing room, he began changing on stage. In Foreign Aids Uys is no less critical of current President Thabo Mbeki than he was of former President P. W. Botha 20 years ago. The play culminates in a haunting comparison between the two leaders. aids is currently the leading cause of death in South Africa, and Mbeki has received international criticism for his inaction. Uys, as Botha, congratulates Mbeki (represented by a ventriloquist dummy) for succeeding where Botha had failed with apartheid. “The name was all wrong,” he says. “What do you call your policy?” “Haven’t you guessed?” the dummy responds, “Democracy.”

While the policies of the government, past and present, aren’t spared from attack, the thrust of Uys’s argument rests on the individual’s responsibility to protect him or herself. “We can’t wait for the politicians,” he says. He not only encourages young people to take control of their lives, but he also tries to motivate his audience. The show builds the audience’s outrage and then presents them with a simple yet direct way to help. At the end, he invites audience members to donate money to Wola Nani, an organization that supports HIV/AIDS mothers and their children, in exchange for one of the women’s handmade beaded ribbons. In his three weeks in Cambridge, he raised over $45,000 in cash donations for the organization.

The critical response and public response to these plays indicate that the South African festival tapped into an unfulfilled need in the community: contrary to what current trends in the commercial theater imply, there remains a desire for challenging, socially relevant theater, a return to the roots of the tradition as a civic event that engages the audience in a debate about pressing social concerns. As for South Africa today, apartheid might be fading in the collective memory, but socioeconomic distinctions by race and racism still prevail. Democracy can be a slow process, as Kani enjoyed pointing out to audiences in post-show discussions. “It’s only been 10 years,” he said. “You’ve been doing this for over 200 years and you still haven’t gotten it right. I think we are doing okay, considering.”


The Syringa Tree by Pamela Gien; Nothing But the Truth by John Kani; Foreign Aids by Pieter-Dirk Uys.

Amy Nora Long is a second-year graduate student at the MXAT/A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University.

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