With malice aforethought
30 August 2014 02:16 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Bond and Higginson: Dramatic worlds, lives, fates

  • J Brooks Spector
  • Life, etc
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Timothy Bond, the American director of the current production at the Market Theatre of The Brothers Size, has been working furiously on locking in every technical detail of the production on the day before opening night. Meanwhile, Craig Higginson, the South African playwright-novelist, has been sitting in on the rehearsals of his own new play, Little Foot, due to open at the Market in July after its run at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. J BROOKS SPECTOR spoke to them about their life in theatre around the world. 

Bond and Higginson seem pleased at the chance for a short break over soup and a salad, away for a while from the intricacies of staging of these two plays. It is a chance to step back to contemplate the impact and consequences of these works internationally – and of their respective crafts. 

Higginson is contemplative and seems absorbed inwardly. Bond is animated and exuberant – almost like a dancer. One is a director, one a writer; one black, one white; one American, one South African. But neither seems particularly limited by those arbitrary boundary lines drawn on maps – even as both of them seem thoroughly rooted in their respective societies.

Bond, who is currently the producing artistic director of the Syracuse Stage in upstate New York, has had a serious career in important American regional theatres like the Seattle Group Theatre and Oregon’s Shakespeare Festival. Along the way he has directed works by August Wilson, Edward Albee, Lorraine Hansberry, Lynn Nottage and now – most recently – Tarell Alvin McCraney. McCraney is still in his early 30s, but this work especially has already been performed across the US and beyond, and Bond has brought this production of it to South Africa to the accompaniment of some rave reviews for the performance and the work itself.

Younger than Bond, Higginson is nevertheless well embarked on an equally important literary career. Also in his 30s, he already has had several highly praised novels published, just received a major book prize, and his play, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, has had laudatory runs in South Africa, the UK, Europe and America. An earlier, shorter version of his latest drama, Little Foot, has already been performed numerous times in Britain as part of London’s “Connections” drama festival, this year paired with the Olympics. However, the new, richer, more complex version is being readied for those upcoming Grahamstown and Market Theatre runs. 

One of Bond’s earliest professional activities was six month’s work with the internationally renowned director, Peter Sellars as he prepared the world premiere of John Adams’ opera, The Death of Klinghoffer in Brussels, Lyon and Vienna - and then on to its controversial opening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City. 

Bond says: “It was fantastic. It was an opportunity of a lifetime and it was a formative moment for me in my career.” He adds, “I got to understand the opera world from this experience.” 

This is not something one immediately expects to hear from a man who has made a reputation in part via his highly regarded productions of some of the best work by contemporary African American playwrights.

Speaking about McCraney’s play, Bond explains that it retains its freshness through its evocation of a kind of African American dialect from the rural bayou spaces of Louisiana in the South. Bond says the play also retains its sharpness, perhaps, because of the unusualness of the stage directions the characters must speak as they move through the play. 

After several weeks of performances in Cape Town at the Baxter, Bond is asked how well he thinks it has worked for South Africans, drawing as it does upon Nigerian folk religious images. He cautions that one should not focus too much on the playwright’s allusions to West African gods, even though this reach-back to African myths does still form part of the background of African Americans. But in his play, McCraney has taken the relationship between the gods, Ogun and Oshoosi, and used that springboard to launch the story he wants to tell about brotherly love and reconciliation – and even love between men. 

“You never see two black men in a real embrace” in the theatre, as opposed to a combative embrace, an attempt-to-control embrace, as in August Wilson’s Fences - between father and son.

As to why bring Bond was so keen to bring this particular play to South Africa, he says he found it was like a healing effort, and that would strike a chord with people who came into the theatre or would see it in a township, and that people might find its message of healing in their conversations after experiencing the performances. And so it did, he thinks. But that is because the story ultimately transcends any one culture or race, or any one country or language. It’s about the ties that bind and the issues that divide brothers. 

Why bring this production to the Market Theatre? Bond explains “It’s one of the great theatres of the world for bringing new voices to the world. Some of the first plays I directed were Market Theatre-style works like Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island.”  

And then, of course, for Bond “the physical approach of those early plays at the Market, led me in my approach to this play.” 

One of the play’s actors had worked with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and that, along with “the “ritualification” embedded deeply into the play itself helped Bond infuse this particular production with its dance-like, stylised movements. And, of course, there was the musical material built right into the play by the playwright, in the first place. For Bond, this time around, it was very important to draw on the African textures in the play that link to African Americans and then bring it all back to Africa. Full circle. 

Bond pauses to reflect upon the dreadful state of prison life in Louisiana – a key element running in the background of The Brothers Size. The fact that so many African Americans actually spend time in prison is a sad, compelling social fact for Bond. It is a coincidence that in this very week’s Economist there is a report on those actual Louisiana prisons - and how that state’s correctional system is really run as a money-making scheme for country sheriffs to the detriment of the prisoners. Life imitates art?  

As for his own taste in plays for his productions, rather than specify particular works, Bond says he looks for work that “illuminates a person’s choices, choices that have an impact psychologically, socially or politically. But in the core of it all, I’m interested in the human heart” across races, genders and cultures rather than about a particular race or class. 

In fact, the previous play he directed before this one was about developmental disability and its effects on the drama’s characters. To pick a play for a community, though, he says he has to know that community, not necessarily pick the most popular work, but rather what meets the mission. 

“I like bringing people from different walks of life together to the plays I do…. I look very carefully at the socio-political landscape to see if a play can be received” effectively. And if such a thing were possible, what would be the next work he would bring to South Africa? August Wilson is the obvious choice. “And which of Wilson’s works?” “Any of them” he answers instantly.

And since this is an election year in the US, an inevitable question must be asked as to his feelings about Barack Obama? When Obama was elected in 2008, he felt “Relief!” And he is now sceptically proud of the country, in light of the barriers that had held some people back. But looking forward to the 2012 election, he is more concerned than before. “I wish him well, not just for his own sake, but for all of ours.”

Meanwhile, in turning to speak with Craig Higginson, he’s been smiling for days after learning he had just won the University of Johannesburg’s prize for a new book published in English, for his novel, The Landscape Painter. Originally from Zimbabwe but now rooted in South Africa, Higginson had lived in London for a decade and, while there, completed early drafts of several novels and plays. His very well received play, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, actually began in the UK as a bi-national co-production. His play before that, Dream of the Dog, had also reached the London West End. 

Yellow Dress of course can easily be thought of as a complex working out of the collisions of misunderstandings between Europe and Africa, but set in Paris. For some, perhaps, it might be a text-driven, African answer to the tragic tale of Dido and Aeneas. 

Higginson’s latest work, Little Foot, is a similarly rich, similarly text-driven work. This time, however, it is set deep in a cave in “the Cradle of Humankind” among all those fossilised remains as they encompass the contemporary characters of the play. Taking a risk, he’s put in a chorus in this modern play that consists of the voices of the ancient hominids. So Higginson has given us this very contemporary story, he says, of “university students in a post-democratic (oops, “post-apartheid” comes the correction quickly) society”. 

Higginson adds, “The South African theatre has done very well in documenting and drawing upon contemporary issues, but this play of mine is ‘pre-race’; something of us, but wider than us”. This play is actually taking place even as paleontologists work to remove hominid fossils from the matrix of rock around them at the Cradle of Humankind.

Little Foot - the fossil rather than the play - when it was still a living creature, had apparently fallen down a hole before it died – did it fall by accident, was it chased, was it pushed? As a result, the characters in the play can speculate about why and how Little Foot ended up where it did. Given all the choral commentary in this play from now-extinct hominids, it’s hard not to think of echoes of William Golding’s The Inheritors, a haunting, sometimes-overlooked novel from a Nobel Prize winner that takes the part of the Neanderthals just as Cro Magnon humans are overwhelming them all those ages ago. 

As Higginson explains his new work, the cave can stand for all kinds of meanings – a dystopia, a womb, a tomb – but it is also the place where pre-humans managed to drive bears and sabre-tooth tigers from the caves so that humans could occupy them themselves. And so, Higginson’s play itself begins with the moment an ancient hominid first captures fire - and that’s where Pandora’s box is first opened, explains Higginson.

Why did Higginson begin to write? He explains that he actually started out as a fine arts student, but a new girl friend, a relationship, propelled him into the writing of poetry. He stopped with the poetry but had, in the meantime, fallen in love with this business of dealing with words. Maybe the arts background is still there as he thinks his own writing continues to have a strong visual element in it. 

After university, Higginson became an assistant to the late Barney Simon, the legendary co-founder of the Market Theatre. When Simon died, Higginson moved on to London, began working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and then eventually accepted that he was going to be a writer when he returned to South Africa – now enjoying the alternatives of writing both novels and plays. Maybe, Higginson says, writing drama is a meander back to his origins as a writer of poetry.

How does he see himself as a South African? After all those years in England, when he returned here he realised he cared much more about the people here, much more than he ever did for any of the people in England. He feels this compulsion to make things at least a bit better than they were before he was here.

Of other important theatre practitioners and voices in South Africa, now, Higginson says certainly Neil Coppen, the designer of Little Foot fits that description. And then Prince Lamla, Vice Motshabi and several other young directors meet that test as well. For new playwrights, however, the task is to be more than the policeman of the new regime and social order, although Mike van Graan’s Green Man Flashing did that task particularly well. For plays, perhaps, maybe it is still early days.

Two men, both working from opposite sides of the globe, both exploring ways to explain that need to communicate, to connect across gaps and misunderstandings. They have met at the Market Theatre when one has helped bring an incandescent work from the US, in a superb production, for South African audiences. The other has mined three million years of life in Africa for a work that attempts to explain something about contemporary South Africa – in the time after apartheid, when, finally, there is so much else to talk about now. DM

(Disclosure: Spector is a member of the Market Theatre’s Council)

Read more:

  • Syracuse Stage's The Brothers Size at the Syracuse New Times website
  • The Brothers Size at the Market Theatre website
  • Two Brothers in a Gumbo of Bayou and West Africa in the New York Times (first major review of the play)
  • Connections Plays 2012 - Little Foot, the UK National Theatre website
  • Craig Higginson wins UJ Main Prize at Artslink

Photos:

Main: Brothers' size director, Timothy Bond

Second photo: Little Foot and the creator Craig Higginson

  • J Brooks Spector
  • Life, etc


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