Bruce takes America by storm
Groundswell ’s themes of race and unemployment have drawn big audiences everywhere from Manhattan to Stockholm and Cape Town
ACROSS between David Mamet and Athol Fugard. That is how Ian Bruce’s play, Groundswell, was glowingly described in the New York Times when it was staged at the Acorn Theatre Centre in Manhattan in June/July. In the credit-crunched times, the theatre was packed – not bad for a contemporary drama from South Africa.
New York critics Barbara and Scott Siegel wrote: “Bruce’s admirable Groundswell represents a new breed of South African theatre – one that is no longer a call to action, but rather a call for selfexamination.”
The three-hander was first staged in 2005 at the Intimate Theatre on Hiddingh Campus by New Africa Theatre. Heinrich Reisenhofer was in the director’s seat with Warrick Grier, Thando Mthi and Roger Dwyer starring as the disappointed and disconnected men who want their lives to have happy endings. The play toured to the Grahamstown Festival, back to Cape Town to the Baxter and then to Joburg. The accolades abounded. It won the 2005 Fleur du Cap awards for best new indigenous play and best director. Roger Dwyer was nominated for best supporting actor. Sadly, Dwyer died in April 2007.
Last year the play was produced in Stockholm by the Royal Swedish Dramatic Theatre and directed by Reisenhofer, with two Swedish actors and South African actor Mbulelo Grootboom.
Groundswell ended up in New York as a result of the Grahamstown Festival.
“An American called Ben Snyders was at the festival. He saw Groundswell, admired it and undertook to find a US producer for it,” explains Ian Bruce. “He handed it to New York producer Orin Wolfe. Orin made a connection with the University of Columbia and, after two years of his efforts, the play was co-produced by Orin and the New Group, resident company at the Acorn Theatre Centre in Manhattan, a highly rated off-Broadway theatre company and venue.”
The actors in the US were Larry Bryggman, Souleymane Sy Savane and David Landsbury. None of the actors from the original staging reprised their roles in the Big Apple.
“Although Orin Wolfe and I discussed it a number of times there was never much chance that a South African director and cast would be able to perform the play in New York. This is due to the cost and the necessity to use marketable, well-known American actors to draw investors and audiences. That is how the business works, though I might have wished it to be otherwise”, reflects Bruce.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how well they did, especially David Landsbury, who is Angela Landsbury’s nephew. He got the South African accent perfect. He was as scary as Warwick was (in the original). The Swedish guy also did it very well. I guess it is a character which translates well wherever one is.”
Did Bruce expect it to be such a hit – commercially and critically?
“I was surprised that it translated so well to an American audience,but then I was also surprised at how deep these issues are in America – race, employment, or lack of it – are all huge issues there now and it is all in the play.”
Racism, entitlement – past and present – are grappled with in this multi-layered drama which is set in a guesthouse in a coastal town. Everyone is prospecting for alluvial diamonds and trying to make a fast buck. There is a whitey who used to be a policeman in the old south Africa and now has pretty much zilch. When he is not diamond diving, he does odd jobs at the guesthouse. The black caretaker at the guesthouse is saving up his money and eking out his living. The policeman dangles a get-rich scheme in his face. But they need seed money.
A tourist with a 4x4 arrives to stay at the guesthouse and so the games begin to entice him into the scheme. He has lost his job to a BEE appointment. His wife has died in a car crash. His daughter lives overseas. He is alone.
It is not specified where the guesthouse is, but it is pretty obvious that it is set in Port Nolloth in Namaqualand, says Bruce. He managed a guesthouse there for three years. “Port Nolloth is a place where many outcasts go – running away from things. There are expolicemen, ex-South African military, ex-prisoners – people who have become dislocated and disconnected as well as a bunch of youngsters who go there to make a fortune in diamonds”.
The title of the play refers to lines from a TS Eliot poem. And there are the allusions to the groundswell – physical and metaphorical: “The groundswell is a real issue in Port Nolloth. When there is a storm down the coast – in Cape Town – the swell picks up and this messes up the visibility for diamond diving. It is actually a seaswell but they call it a groundswell.”
Bruce’s sojourn in Port Nolloth came about after he returned from exile in the Netherlands. He left in 1976 – just before the Soweto riots – as he did not want to fight and defend South Africa’s borders. In his 16 or 17 years in Holland, he wrote, directed and acted in plays; and founded The English Speaking Theatre and a South African theatre in Amsterdam.
On his return in 1992, he was involved with several initiatives – working with street children, running a surplus people project and an environmental project.
Then came his time in Port Nolloth, where the seeds for Groundswell took root. After that, in 1998, he became director of New Africa Theatre (www.newafricatheatre.org), which is not be confused with Nicholas Ellenbogen’s Theatre for Africa.
New Africa Theatre was started in 1987 by Mavis Taylor. Based in Sybrand Park, Athlone, it has several arms – including a drama school which offers one-year certificate courses. The school is at present working on developing a threeyear diploma course.
The venture is also kitting out the theatre and has established a theatre laboratory – a company with resident perfor mers. New Africa Theatre is also a production house and was responsible for producing and staging Groundswell in South Africa.
HARD TALK: Playwright Ian Bruce has pioneered a new theme of self-examination in South African theatre.