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Grahamstown ArtsFest ‘16: Digging Deep – parallel quests to understand ourselves as human beings

Grahamstown ArtsFest ‘16: Digging Deep – parallel quests to understand ourselves as human beings

What makes us who and what we are? What differentiates us? We are so quick, in South Africa, to throw shallow labels around – “You white, you black, why are you like you are?! Why can’t you be more like us?!” – as if what’s on the surface is who we are. How superficial is that? Two plays on at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this week dig deep to find out who we are, and how we are formed and influenced by events that life throws at us, while a third explores our darkest vulnerabilities and frailties. By TONY JACKMAN.

Scratch the surface. Let the layers of skin peel away. Don’t scratch too much. What lies beneath there? We pass a neglected dorp on the N1 – Leeu Gamka, say. While you’re filling the tank, a coloured urchin scurries between the cars in the parking lot, dressed in a torn T-shirt and dirty shorts, shoes a size too big. They’re nuisances to most of the drivers who stop here. They’re going to try to get a few bucks off you. They’re going nowhere in life, probably on tik, or soon will be. Or…?

The driver sighs sadly, gives the kid a R2 coin (he didn’t have any ones), winds up the window and drives off. Back home, his ma is drunk as usual, while his pa’s spent the day on the roadside hoping a baas with a white bakkie will come along and give him a day’s work on one of the farms. That night, the boy will be abused. Again. In one way or another. So every day, the boy escapes and goes to the Shell garage, where the people from far away come by in their shiny cars and he gawps at the wheels and wonders, what must life be like at the end of that road, where does it lead to and what happens there? Is there happiness there, or is everyone drunk and abusive like here?

Lara Foot, and she deserves massive credit for this, saw beyond the tatty clothes and no-hope eyes when she wrote and devised Karoo Moose. It’s set in a dirt-poor Karoo village and Foot is on record as saying that the themes “were bound up in the idea that the children in the village needed some kind of magical event to free them from abuse, neglect and poverty. Something magical was needed to break the cycle of violence.”

Photo: Chuma Sopotela and Bongile Mantsai perform with the rest of the cast in a scene from Karoo Moose, written and directed by Lara Foot, at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, South Africa, 30 June 2016. (Photo: CuePix/Harold Gess)

What she made of that is something extraordinary and having seen the show for the first time ever, this week, it is abundantly clear why it has the reputation that it has. Karoo Moose is a wonderful amalgam of Karoo story-telling, fantasy and fay magic which has been revived for this year’s festival where its writer and director Foot is the featured artist for 2016.

It is wild, stomping, rich, funny, trenchant, painful, soaring, enchanting theatre. You run out of epithets. Just add your own here ………………… if you’ve seen it and love it. And boy does the cast work. The energy is exhausting, and that’s just for the audience.

The “magical event” is a moose that has supposedly been seen near the village, and of course, yes we know, there are no mooses (meece?) in the Karoo. But that’s what makes the idea magical, and the theme is explored in ways that are thrilling and riveting. Truly out-of-of-this-world theatre.

Very different in feel but also exploring themes of identity and context is The Keeper of the Kumm, conceived and adapted by Basil Appollis from Sylvia Vollenhoven’s book of the same title, about a quest to find and understand our ancestry. Though, here, the ancestry is specific to the bushman, arguably the most suppressed of our forebears in this country, the theme is meant to represent a broader investigation for any or all of us.

I have known fellow journalist Sylvia Vollenhoven for more years, even decades, than either of us is likely to own up to. Even soon after I met her in the very late ‘70s, she used to talk about needing to find and understand her identity, where she came from. She flippantly referred to herself as “a coloured girl” or “a Cape Flats girl”, always with a throwaway laugh and a call for another glass of wine (as we all did). Sylvia was never “out of the box”, never one one to fit a label. When the Mixed Marriages Act was still firmly in place, she went off to London to marry her white boyfriend (one of my closest friends) and came back having elegantly defied the law. What were the authorities going to do about that? I always thought it was genius – not that everyone could afford to ship to another country to get spliced, but be that as it may.

We lost touch for very many years. How intriguing, then, it was for me to rediscover both Sylvia and the fruition of her quest. And clearly it is very personal.

A much calmer, tamer production than Karoo Moose, “Keeper” has a journalist (representing Vollenhoven’s own perspective and quest) reluctantly begin probing her own ancestors, thereby unpicking and dismantling her (our) prejudices about who they might have been, like that little urchin at the roadside in Paragraph 1.

Kumm” means story, or the account of what has happened – the record if you like – in the extinct !Xam language, and its keeper is any story-teller honour-bound to pass on the knowledge, and accurately, in ways that will be understood and have meaning for the next generations. So there can be any number of keepers.

Photo: Quanita Adams, Byron Klaasen, Dustin Jannetjies, Dawn Langdown, Faroll Adams and Adelaide Majoor perform in the theatre production The Keeper of the Kumm on 03 July at the 2016 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. (Photo: CuePix/Ivan Blazic)

We meet a quite extraordinary ancestor, from 1870, who goes by several monikers: Kabbo, Uhi-ddorro, or Jantjie Tooren. He’s a sage and patient figure who takes it upon himself to save and preserve his dying culture and seeks somebody who will write down the stories. Sylvia’s own quest becomes intertwined with the story of the play, until the point is trenchantly made that (like that kid in paragraph 1) the ignored, neglected people and communities of our vast and discordant country do not deserve to be sidelined, and their stories and the essence of who they are both as individuals and as “peoples” deserve to be, must be, preserved. A shoutout to you, Sylvia, from an old friend. So impressed.

Moving on to the third play, which is very very different from either of the two described above. It is another Lara Foot production, the premiere of her new work, The Inconvenience of Wings, which delves very deep into the darkest and most feared parts of the human psyche: the world of the human being having to live with bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression. (There is a superb line delivered in the play about how the second term became outlawed so as not to offend the politically correct, but let’s not spoil it; just do watch out for it if you see the play.)

Foot cleverly inverts the story so that we begin at the end and end at the beginning. It spans from 1995 backwards to 1961, stopping along the way at key years in the relationship of a couple living with bipolar disorder (that is, him living with her disorder, for it very much affects them both).

This must surely be pretty personal for many of us – many of us knowing somebody who is bipolar, whether they know it, or admit it, or not. I have a dear friend who I am convinced is bipolar, but you feel you cannot say so, or even hint at it, without calamity ensuing. Like alcoholism (and I have lived with that, my father having been an alcoholic), the sufferer has to acknowledge it for something to be done, and the healing, the medical care of the disorder, is no walk in the park.

Again, I take my hat off to Foot. She gets it, she truly, deeply, gets it across in this most excellent play. I have to admit that for the first 20 minutes or so I was shuffling in my seating thinking, where is this going, they need to shake things up. But it settles in and once you get into the meat of the story it grips you and takes you all the way.

Photo: Mncedisi Shabangu, Jennifer Steyn and Andrew Buckland perform in the opening of the theatre production, The Inconvenience of Wings at the National Arts Festival, 3 July 2016. (Photo: Cue/Dani O’Neill)

And Jennifer Steyn, wow. What a performance. Nuanced, aching, wild, mad, desperate, manic … actually manic at times. You can totally see how awful it must be to live with a manic depressive (yes, I used the term, get over it). And that he stays with her is poignantly a serious thread of the tale. He is played by my fellow Grahamstonian Andrew Buckland (okay, he’s a veteran Grahamstonian, I’ve been here five minutes), while the third character on stage is a psychiatrist who is really an academic played by Mncedisi Shabangu, both of whom turn into top-drawer performances.

Three excellent shows, all of which deserve to tread many more boards and all three of which you should catch if they come to a theatre your way.

Talking of which, The Inconvenience of Wings is headed for the Studio at Lara Foot’s Baxter in Cape Town, so do see it. Talking of which, Lara Foot [Disclosure: I don’t know her]: Please give more of us a look-in down at Lara Foot’s Baxter. Oh and: Somewhere in a drawer or on a shelf in your office is the script I sent you three, maybe four years ago. You never did get back to me on that. DM

Main photo: The Karoo Moose, The Inconvenience of Wings, The Keeper of the Kumm. (By Cue)


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