Play­ing with Our Emo­tions

Tal­ented South African Play­wrights

Indwe - - Contents - Text: Lesley Stones Images © Sup­plied

There’s noth­ing more mag­i­cal than the the­atre – when dark­ness de­scends, the stage il­lu­mi­nates, and you’re trans­ported into an­other world. So if you can’t re­mem­ber the last time you saw a live show, you’re miss­ing a treat. Lots of treats, in fact, be­cause South Africa’s play­wrights are craft­ing bril­liant works that will have you laugh­ing, cry­ing, think­ing and learn­ing – pos­si­bly all at the same time.


“There’s some­thing about the en­gage­ment be­tween the live au­di­ence and the peo­ple on stage that you don’t ex­pe­ri­ence in other art forms,” says play­wright Mike van Graan. “There are char­ac­ters that re­flect you and your anx­i­eties, your hopes and fears, your laugh­ter, your anger – and in a so­ci­ety as traumatised as ours, the­atre can offer hope and es­capism.”

If there’s an is­sue of so­cial sig­nif­i­cance to dis­cuss, Van Graan has most likely al­ready writ­ten a play about it. He’s a ra­zor-sharp satirist and life-long ac­tivist who wraps his mes­sages in jokes, po­lit­i­cal wise­cracks and witty ban­ter, win­ning laughs as he nudges you to think dif­fer­ently about racism, poverty, cor­rup­tion, cli­mate change, fu­ner­als, and even football.

His shows like State Frac­ture pro­voke un­bri­dled laugh­ter plus a few shocked “yohs” at his au­dac­ity, as he treads a fine line be­tween hi­lar­ity and du­bi­ous taste like a tightrope walker, tilt­ing over but never quite fall­ing in. Oth­ers are grip­ping dra­mas like Rain­bow Scars and When Swal­lows Cry, with hu­mour eas­ing the ten­sion.

He writes to offer cathar­sis, he says. “Many peo­ple are in­cred­i­bly traumatised by

our past and plays offer a way to deal with those trau­mas or cur­rent trau­mas. Satire helps peo­ple to laugh at those things.”

Van Graan was clas­si­fied as coloured dur­ing apartheid, and his first plays were per­formed at il­le­gal protest marches. Now his 30 scripts and his in­volve­ment with lo­cal and global or­gan­i­sa­tions that pro­mote cul­tural di­ver­sity make him a pow­er­ful voice in the arts world. This month he’ll fly to Swe­den to re­ceive the pres­ti­gious Hiroshima Prize, awarded to cul­tural ac­tivists whose work fos­ters dia­logue, un­der­stand­ing and peace.

His tense po­lit­i­cal thriller Green Man Flash­ing un­can­nily pre­dicted the cor­rup­tion and sex scan­dals that would hit Ja­cob Zuma. Catch it at the Auto & General The­atre on the Square in Sand­ton, Jo­han­nes­burg, un­til 12th May. And visit www.mike­van­ for more in­for­ma­tion.


The Ja­panese art of kamishibai ar­rived in South Africa through Jemma Kahn. This is an an­cient form of the­atre where painted pic­tures in a frame are re­vealed one by one to tell a story. But there’s noth­ing el­e­gantly ori­en­tal about the way Kahn does it. She’s turned kamishibai

into saucy, sexy shows like The Epicene Butcher and Other Sto­ries for Con­sent­ing Adults, com­plete with a male as­sis­tant wear­ing . . . Well, not very much at all.

Kahn cre­ates her own scripts, some­times bring­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tors, and acts them out with zeal. “I write be­cause often I can’t af­ford to pay other, real writ­ers what they de­serve,” she jokes. “I haven’t writ­ten enough to have a spe­cial­ity, but they share a hu­mor­ous fix­a­tion with mor­tal­ity. I prob­a­bly get that from my par­ents – they talk about death non-stop.”

Each work is an at­tempt at a new genre, she says. “With In Bocca al Lupo I was try­ing comic mem­oir. With a new one, The Bor­row Pit, I want to do his­tor­i­cal fic­tion mixed with hor­ror. But my in­ten­tion is al­ways to en­ter­tain and trans­port – those clichéd sto­ry­telling terms.”

Kahn be­lieves there is noth­ing more en­gag­ing than the the­atre. “When you watch some­thing good, you’re trans­fixed. A film can do that too, but the con­tact is scarier in the the­atre be­cause the ac­tor is right there. To watch ac­tors nail­ing it is like watch­ing alchemy.”

Kahn will pre­miere The Bor­row Pit at the Na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val in Gra­ham­stown from 28th June to 8th July. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit jem­


“I write be­cause I am a writer and there is al­most noth­ing else I can do rea­son­ably well. It’s a com­bi­na­tion of the com­pul­sion to write and good old sur­vival,” jokes Louis Viljoen, the Writer in Res­i­dence at Cape Town’s Fu­gard The­atre. That’s a po­si­tion that gives him the wel­come and un­usual se­cu­rity of guar­an­teed com­mis­sions. He’s writ­ten, di­rected or pro­duced nu­mer­ous plays and won awards for Champ, The King­mak­ers and The Per­vert Laura.

“This is the only way I know how to feed my­self, so I have no choice but to write in or­der to get through this life with as lit­tle mis­ery as pos­si­ble,” he says. His deep thoughts get darker, too, as his writ­ing ex­plores “the well of aw­ful­ness we all have in­side of us”, and how that af­fects our lives, the so­ci­ety we live in, the in­sti­tu­tions we rely on, and the tra­di­tions we des­per­ately cling to.

He isn’t aim­ing for any spe­cific im­pact, he says. “My goal is not to teach, preach or change any­one’s life. If an au­di­ence re­sponds to the play and it has an im­pact on them, that’s grand. But my job is to tell a story, en­ter­tain an au­di­ence, and leave it open to them to re­act in what­ever way they want.”

Viljoen’s new hor­ror-com­edy, The De­mon Bride, runs at Cape Town’s Fu­gard Stu­dio The­atre from 8th May to 2nd June.


Since part of the thrill of the the­atre is be­ing able to recog­nise and re­late to its char­ac­ters, Nadia Davids feels drawn to cre­ate more roles for Mus­lim women.

Her main sub­jects are the his­tor­i­cal and present dif­fi­cul­ties of Cape Town, with a fo­cus on com­plex, funny, bright and in­ter­est­ing women of colour who have some­thing to say about the world. “Writ­ing is one of my chief joys but it’s also the process by which I try to make sense of things. Life can be over­whelm­ingly com­plex and writ­ing al­lows me to un­tan­gle that com­plex­ity, just a lit­tle,” she says. “It’s about try­ing to con­nect to other peo­ple through words, to share ideas, to find in­no­va­tive ways of telling sto­ries.”

Gather­ing to­gether to en­joy live ex­pe­ri­ences is still im­por­tant even in this vir­tual-re­al­ity world, she says. “The­atre is an an­cient ac­tiv­ity and I’m glad peo­ple still have a rea­son to gather to­gether, to watch some­thing un­fold live. And the­atre can often be a good night out!”

Her play What Re­mains has just won five awards in the Fleur de Cap The­atre Awards, in­clud­ing the Best New South African Script. This fu­sion of text, dance and move­ment tells a story about the dis­cov­ery of a slave burial ground in Cape Town. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit­di­a­

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