Playing with Our Emotions
Talented South African Playwrights
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.
MIKE VAN GRAAN
“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.mikevangraan.co.za 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 jemmakahn.com.
“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, visit www.nadiadavids.com.