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23 November 2017 20:25 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Born in the RSA: When the past sometimes doesn't make it to the future

  • Marianne Thamm
    Marianne Thamm
  • Life, etc

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the death of South African theatre pioneer, Barney Simon, the Baxter Theatre has revived ‘Born In The RSA’, one of his most successful theatre collaborations. This new production, however, exposes the weaknesses of workshopped, documentary theatre – a format which served its purpose at the time. Today the work is little more than a one-dimensional cultural and educational curiosity. By MARIANNE THAMM.

The context in which celebrated theatre maker Barney Simon and the original cast created Born in the RSA, which became a showpiece for South African theatre in the mid 1980s touring the UK and the US, is crucial in understanding its major flaws and weaknesses.

The year 1985, when it was written, was the year of the Trojan Horse murder in Cape Town (when police hiding in an unmarked truck opened fire on protesters in Athlone, killing three), the year of PW Botha's ‘Rubicon Speech’, the year a State of Emergency was declared, the year lawyer Victoria Mxenge was assassinated by an Apartheid death squad, the year the SADF raided uMkhonto weSizwe’s headquarters in Gabarone killing 12 activists and a time when newspapers were severely censored and prevented from reporting on the growing insurrection inside the country.

In these circumstances the personal was political and the political was personal. With most public outlets for the dissemination of news tightly controlled and censored by the state, theatre makers turned to the stage to inform the public of what was happening in the country. It was a golden age of workshopped, collectivist, collaborative ‘non racial’ theatre which later became known as ‘alternative theatre’. With government censors too busy watching journalists, the stage became a space where energetic protest blossomed.

Before this, of course, many black playwrights including Gibson Kente, Matsemela Manaka, Maishe Maponya, Mbongeni Ngema, Percy Mtwa, Zakes Mda and Mzwandile Maqina had been producing theatre that was seldom seen beyond township community and church halls. These works, which were often didactic, were the beginnings of the improvised and collectivist tradition including song, dance and movement, that would later spill over into the Market Theatre and reach wider audiences.

Barney Simon, who died in 1995, co-founded the now iconic Market Theatre as a non-racial cultural centre, built on this collectivist method of theatre creation and in so doing inspired a generation of actors and writers. He encouraged casts to conduct extensive documentary research while exploring their own sense of identity and/or personal politics during the creative process. And so it was that the original cast of Born the RSA, Thoko Ntshinga, Timmy Kwebulana, Fiona Ramsay, Neil McCarthy, Vanessa Cook, Gcina Mhlope and Terry Norton came to fashion this story about a diverse group of South Africans caught up in the madness and betrayal of the times.

And it is precisely that which worked so well then that fails to translate now. The very immediacy of the script and the character's lives, its focus on their present circumstances with very little exploration of what really drives them as unique human beings, is what renders the script almost meaningless today apart from offering merely spirited education.

The set for this revival, a stage papered with newspaper headlines of the time, reflects the primary purpose of the piece – mostly to inform. We never quite get to the deeper motivations and lives of the characters who remain, throughout, mere cardboard cutouts, paper dolls, trapped in the minutiae of daily life and the political currents and rhetoric that surrounds them. It's all about the externals with very little evidence of the internal architecture of the characters. Without this, the play's foundations, its essence, is weak and shallow-rooted.

It is interesting to note that later this year the Baxter will host a revival of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, a play written by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona in 1972. This new production, directed by John Kani and which will run from 19 August to 12 September, features's Kani's son Atandwa Kani and Mncedisi Shabangu. There have been countless revivals of Sizwe over the years because the play, while it is set in Apartheid South Africa, transcends the time and its geography. It is a searing tale about a man's search for an identity. Today Sizwe could very well be a refugee or a migrant in South Africa, and it is this literary depth Born the RSA lacks.

There are also glaring plotholes, the most frustrating being the fact that the lead character, activist Thenjiwe Bono (superbly brought to life by the infinitely watchable Faniswa Yisa), is left in a cell centre stage while the rest of the cast run around searching for a young boy, Dumisani, who has been arrested by the police. Thenjiwe's sister, Sindiswa (played by Zanele Radu) as well as her lodger, jazz musician Zacharia Melani (Dobs Madotyeni) are consumed with finding Dumisani and hardly refer to Thenjiwe as she is left standing, alone in her cell. This textual and dramatic oversight results in a feeling of disconnection (which might well have been reflective of the times) but it leaves the audience holding onto too many unravelling threads.

An interesting observation that also has more to do with the times and fact that workshopped theatre was often dominated by white lefties, is that the white characters spend much more time speaking and creating a backstory than the black characters, who are rendered hollow stereotypes spouting political rhetoric and occasionally bursting out into struggle songs. This points to the dominant cultural hegemony of the time (yes there's that word) and perhaps that these plays were aimed at more at ‘educating’ white or ‘international’ audiences, most of whom lived lives removed from the daily violence. The lack of layering or intimacy of the black characters in relation to the audience speaks, from our vantage point in the 21st Century, to a lingering silence currently being challenged by a generation of born frees.

That said, this young cast, directed by Thoko Ntshinga, including Emily Child, Roeline Daneel, Francis Chouler and Joanna Evans, elevate the script from its history bringing highly watchable and compelling performances. Ntshinga has managed to ensure an intensity, vibrancy and pace that serves, in the moment, to mask the play's flaws.

This offering, while it might leave those who survived the times rather undernourished creatively, will probably serve to enlighten a younger generation of South Africans who have no idea of what it must have been like to live in that ‘other country’. DM

Photo: L-R Zanele Radu, Joanna Evans, Dobs Madotyeni, Roeline Daneel, Faniswa Yisa, Emily Child and Francis Chouler (Photo by Rodger Bosch)

  • Marianne Thamm
    Marianne Thamm
  • Life, etc

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