AGEING is not for sissies … and that was writer Elsa Joubert’s big battle as she seemed to hurtle towards yet another of those big numbers so revered – not by but seemingly of the elderly.
There’s also a glaring difference in the ageing of those between 60 and 80 and those above 80, she argues, as her children get busy planning her 90th birthday.
And she isn’t even sure she wants to participate in any celebrations!
It all began with the death of her husband Klaas, trying to adapt to a life without him, then her choice to move to an old-age home with losses of many different kinds looming large.
It starts with a family home swapped for a single room, the loss of mobility and, perhaps more than anything, the loss of independence as your world becomes smaller by the day.
She is in mourning for her life, the one that is gone, that which is disappearing and she wants to hold onto. She has to work hard at letting go and finding a new source of inspiration. Writing and reading remain her close friends and are probably what pulls her through until she can see the light.
Adapting a book of 200 pages plus and capturing the essence in a script of 20 pages is tricky but director/writer Rademeyer has cleverly focussed on what he felt would best get to the heart of what Joubert was trying to say.
It has to do with acceptance and focussing on the small miracles that become lost in a world where everyone is rushing past. Ageing halts you in your tracks. It gives you time to breathe, to take in the world around you. It could be seen as a life gone by and also a future that might deprive you of the freedoms of the past – yet open up a new world where life slows down and gives you the chance to behold and to cherish.
This isn’t an easy text to play, with Joubert finding it especially tough to adapt and to accept the hand she has been dealt. Who would have known that this woman of such accomplishments (Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena for example) would suffer such anxiety in old age – a time when one could possibly savour everything you have achieved.
But Prinsloo knows how to tell this story. By the time she and Rademeyer stepped into the rehearsal space, they had both spent time refining the text in different ways and they knew where they were headed and what they hoped to achieve.
It’s the peaks and troughs that she navigates so seamlessly as she takes you to a world either you yourself – or your parents – might be approaching. And as Rademeyer, still a young man, says, the story brings empathy for something all of us will experience in some form.
It is through the movement, her laughter, her initial obstinacy which grows to acceptance that the story is given life. And then you can savour Joubert’s words, her struggle to find solace and finally her wonderment as she moves closer to the meaning of especially that which has become her life.
Prinsloo is a master at getting under the skin of a character. And with this not her first woman navigating old age, she had to find the uniqueness of the writer’s voice, her way of coming to terms with a life she feels so diminished.
And finally, as Joubert understands so miraculously, you have to find meaning for yourself and it isn’t in the ageing process. But if you look, listen and open your heart, it’s there. There’s something about the frailty we have as babies when we first arrive in this world, which returns in all its tenderness at the end of our lives.
It’s a quiet production in which the story and how it is told is what overwhelms you. And again Prinsloo as always has the final word. She tells it with heartfelt honesty and finally a gracefulness that embraces Joubert’s world and the riches it still has to offer.
Sandra Prinsloo has this past decade proved her weight in gold as someone who easily slips into a solo show, packs a punch because she knows how to pick them and pulls in the audiences because of her track record. Her latest production is based on the Elsa Joubert memoir Spertyd (Cul-De-Sac) which deals with the author’s aversion to ageing which will be performed at Pretoria’s Atterbury Theatre from April 20 to 25. DIANE DE BEER speaks to Philip Rademeyer who adapted the book as well as directed the play:
After director/playwright Philip Rademeyer had read Elsa Joubert’s book, he knew he wanted to both adapt and direct the play.
While his parents aren’t old, they are ageing and just on the first reading he already had more insight, he says about Joubert’s memoir Spertyd (Cul de Sac) which deals with her personal ageing process.
But he also relished the opportunity at a second chance to direct the stunning Sandra Prinsloo, who had previously been part of the Soebatsfontein cast. This solo production would give him the opportunity again to work with someone whose art and work ethic he admired.
“I was quite intimidated the first time round,” he explains, but in the meantime he had experienced in full force Prinsloo’s humanity – a rare human being. He knew this was going to be a learning experience with rich rewards. “She has such a wealth of experience,” he notes and that doesn’t even take into account her abundant talent.
Because of lockdown, he was given the time to spend on the script as well as the collaboration of Prinsloo and producers Alexa Strachan and Margit Meyer-Rödenbeck. It doesn’t get much better than that.
The problems started with an adaptation that meant stripping a memoir of 200 pages into a script of 20. “We decided early on that the focus would be as the author herself described it, “a journey through the continent of ageing”.
He had the luxury of reworking one draft after the next until everybody was satisfied or as close as they could achieve.
It also meant that by the time he and Prinsloo stepped into the rehearsal room they had really worked through the text over and over again. “We were already on the same page,” he says. And they had by that time determined that she wasn’t going to try to replicate Elsa Joubert.
“We worked with the woman we found in the text”, as well as trying to differentiate this latest character from another ageing character Prinsloo had previously portrayed in Die Naaimasjien.
What appealed to Rademeyer about the memoir was Joubert’s directness about and dislike of ageing. “I don’t think we should be in denial,” he says. “I liked that she was so honest about her limitations.” And it was this loss the author experienced in a world that seemed to become painfully small and isolated from what she had experienced in an earlier life that they hoped to capture.
From a directing vantage, Rademeyer is all about giving the performer the best advantage to tell their story. The first challenge was the space and the 95-year-old Joubert whom Prinsloo had to inhabit.
Prinsloo is a young 70-ish, so both her movement and youthfulness had to be curtailed. “I couldn’t do quick scene changes with her running across the room,” says the director.
He was also aware that his insecurities probably hampered their first encounter.
This time round he could wallow in their personal engagement as well as marvelling at her work process. “She doesn’t take anything for granted,” he says, and realised that those who sustain their careers for this length of time achieve that longevity with hard work. “It’s all about her talent and the person she is.”
In the end, what they hoped to achieve was to heighten the state of captivity the writer felt as her life, because of many different factors, seemed to diminish – slowly but surely.
It is a reminder of the Churchill quote that intially the world was his stage. This changed to his country, then his home, his room and finally his bed.
And that was the image Rademeyer held onto when he was imagining both the physical and mental picture of Joubert’s state of mind about ageing. “We created this single room to suggest her world inside – and that of the outside world.”
Looking back at the process and the experience, Rademeyer believes that he feels much more caring about older people. When you’re young, you’re irritated by the slow speed of ageing people, he explained. But now he has a much gentler eye. “We’re all on our way there,” he says with much more understanding.
That is what he hopes this play will do for both young and old – remind them to be mindful both of what was and what will be. “It brings you up close to your own mortality,” he says. And it’s a reminder of how to treat older people.
“You should treat them as you would like to be respected when you get there,” he concludes.
Looking ahead, he is mindful of the time just past and where we find ourselves right now. 2020 wasn’t a bad year because he had both the Spertyd script and production. There was also less awareness of the damage to come due to Covid-19.
But now he is tired of the isolation, battles with the loss and loneliness of creativity and hopes to find inspiration in the future. But as a creative, he knows things will change and he is determined to wow audiences with large casts and big issues.
It’s time to grapple with the problems of our time, he believes. And he knows the audiences are there to support their work.
Here’s holding thumbs.
In the meantime, Spertyd will be playing at the Atterbury Theatre from April 20 to 25 and move to the Suidoosterfees in Cape Town from April 29.
Hopefully once the festival circuit is up and running again, Spertyd will travel far and wide and like the book that was translated as Cul-De-Sac, the play might also eventually be translated to reach a wider audience.
When genius artist/wordsmith Willem Boshoff appointed Hélène Smuts as his curator a few years back, his instincts were as savvy as his art.
Bless the Javett Centre that in these tough times they had one of the few art exhibition openings worthy of a creator of Willem Boshoff’s calibre.
And with the wealth of experience of the curator and artist combined, they have stretched this one to early January 2022, so that South Africans will have more than enough time to experience both the earlier and latest work of one of our most exciting artists. Also keep an eye out for all the events, workshops, launching of an extensive catalogue, druid walks by Boshoff, all of which will be announced and will be huge fun to engage in.
The exhibition (as the press release states so succinctly) Word Woes is a retrospective of works spanning the duration of Boshoff’s artistic practice. The exhibition title, taken from a signature work by Boshoff, is understood in English and in Afrikaans. In either language the two words look identical, but their meanings differ sharply. Read in English, the title WORD WOES bemoans difficult issues around words and language. Read in Afrikaans, the same words liberate, prompting us to let go and be wild.
And so it goes with Boshoff’s art. It is as awe-inspiring as it is accessible, and huge fun as the artist works with words in a way that is genius while those who look, first have fun with the vocabulary and then get lost in the artwork and the way the artist produces something so spectacular. His work is always detailed and can take the viewer exploring indefinitely.
He has already moved on, he says. Busy with approximately 30 works currently, he had a breakthrough that morning (of the opening) and was itching to get back to test his solution – something that will probably brilliantly bewitch viewers in the future.
Boshoff’s concern according to the curator and entrenched in his work is often with the context in which we receive language and the power it yields to exclude or to privilege. He uses unconventional tactics, she points out, to challenge the use of language as an instrument of cultural identity or exclusion. He describes all his works, whether sculptural or graphic, as conceptual books. That’s why it needs time to view as you not only look at the work but also read the different “books”.
As art writer/critic Dr Johan Myburg, the opening speaker noted: “Although meaning (what does it mean?) is an important aspect of Willem Boshoff’s art – in order to get the meaning, to get the hang of the words, requires a performative input from the viewer (the viewer has to change his or her position: either to under+stand or to vêr-staan or to get up close to (I am thinking of Abamfusa Lawula)) – the presence of the artwork – from the earliest aluminium Cube to the recent Blue, made from wood, cut paper and glue – has the ability to communicate immediately. In the words of the poet TS Eliot: ‘genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’.
It is the way he states his case – not with the obvious but in a way that is often playful yet deadly serious in message.
Myburg also explains that WORD WOES/WORD WOES (and a preamble to this current exhibition as are many other works), the mural made in Richmond in 2018, has been dedicated to a fellow artist, the writer Karel Schoeman – known for his novels (translated) such as Promised Land, Another Country and This Life. He died the year before in 2017.
The similarities between these giants are remarkable, says Myburg in his speech. “Both Boshoff and Schoeman are writing with stones and slabs of granite, both are writing with thorns and sand. Both are employing words searching for meaning, for double meanings, for hidden meanings, for meaning lost in translation. Both are employing woeful words to lament the lack of meaning. Above all, both require to know: What is the meaning of it all.”
And that, he says, is what Hélène Smuts as creator, translator of meaning, states so clearly with this remarkable retrospective exhibition.
“The ability to marvel – and not to know for sure.
The ability to doubt woes – without any one firm belief.
The ability to question, om te bly torring, to unravel, om te ontrafel.
Die vermoë om te speel, om te goël, om woes met woorde om te gaan. (The ability to play, to cast a spell, to work fiercely with words.)
And then concludes: There is only one Willem Boshoff.”
And it takes one poet to recognise and explain another.
Smuts elaborates that the wanderings of Word Woes started in 2019 when a smaller version of the current exhibition was curated for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) in the UK by Smuts and Louise Lohr (YSP) to introduce the spectacular artist after he had a work included in the YSP’s permanent collection.
As with this current exhibition, the Claire and Edoardo Villa Trust facilitated the Yorkshire exhibition after Boshoff had received the trust’s award in 2018. And with this current one,also co-sponsored with the Matthias and Gervanne Leridon Collection.
Smuts explains that she has expanded the curatorial focus “to a locking and unlocking of knowledge and meaning through the artist’s life-long exploration of language”. .
A supporting educational and public programme will offer guided tours, school/student workshops, printed educational resources and weekend events with invited guests. Watch this space. It will be worth watching out for walkabouts with the artist talking about his work. He is as much an artist when he talks.
Blessed with a couple of chefs in my close circle of friends or otherwise passionate foodies, I didn’t pay that much attention when a holiday at the coast was planned with a favourite chef in tow.
Spoilt is probably the word that comes up when thinking back and because he warned us that he wasn’t going to be cooking much, I probably didn’t pay much heed. Who does when on a self-catering holiday?
But this was Covid, no swimming allowed even though the beach and those blue waters were beckoning but we had made certain provisions.
Swimming is my form of therapy and without breaking any laws, I was determined to be allowed in the water. We decided foraging would be the best way and purchased a few mussel licences. And before I knew it, I was dangling with my chef companion Hennie Fisher from a few rocks and collecting mussels for the pot.
There’s no way you can do this without catching a few waves to get to the best place to forage mussels, so some obstacles were crossed in one go.
That’s where all the food fun began. Growing up in a seaside town (Mossel Bay of all places) one would have thought I would know everything about foraging and yet, it isn’t something that we ever did. The sea was a large part of my childhood, but that meant swimming and fish meals. Probably living in a fishing town, all those things one could forage were freely available in those times when the sea seemed to offer everything in abundance.
That’s my excuse anyway. What I discovered though was how much I enjoyed this collecting of the mussels, bringing the harvest home, being taught to clean and preparing the cook and then watching the chef create magic.
We all know that when you know the rules, you can break them and probably that’s the biggest difference between those of us who have to cook every day as opposed to those who have made it their calling – and for Hennie it is just that. He loves feeding people especially those who enjoy his food, and with me he has a disciple.
We knew that with our biggest harvest, a whole bucketful, which we decided to braai over an open fire, and eat as is. It’s quite amazing, as Hennie pointed out, it was even perfectly seasoned and didn’t need anything – not even salt. Hello, it comes from the sea!
The first mussel effort was not planned so it was a relatively humble harvest, which my ingenious chef quickly turned into a chopped and steamed mussel vinaigrette served on his sourdough loaves, freshly baked. It appeared so easy to make something so completely unforgettable. It’s the kind of food I can’t get enough of. It’s fresh so all the flavours are heightened and yet it is so simple. And especially food from the sea is best to keep simple because when it is fresh you don’t need much embellishment. It will dull rather than enhance the flavours.
But what could be better than an abundance of mussels, freshly gathered and cleaned, cooked on the braai. It’s simple, under the beautiful starry skies with all your senses on full alert. It’s the best taste of the sea, which is exactly what you crave when you’re there.
And then there was a final collection which was in-between the smallest and biggest forage which Hennie turned into creamy mussel and chorizo linguine with fresh, home-made pasta which our stylist AB Heyns quickly proceeded to make.
When making fantastic food is made to look so easy – and it is – that’s when your meals are the best especially on holiday when no one wants to spend too much time in the kitchen. But also when it’s all hands on deck, cooking is turned into a party – and the results the payoff!
Even my partner who is usually happy to have a sandwich and needs meat to be involved – was in ecstasy about our holiday fare.
But foraging didn’t only compensate hungry tummies, when planned it also becomes a feast for the eye. AB is someone who knows how to put a room together and even on holiday, he needs to do exactly that.
So when in the seaside town out for a walk, we would pick all kinds of natural foliage along the way and because those exquisite blue hydrangeas were in full bloom in many gardens, he popped into the first one where he spotted people, told a tall tale about celebrating a birthday, and pronto we had our foliage and flowers for the rest of our stay.
Breakfasts were also a family affair, but mostly this is where the freshly baked bread did hard duty as we consumed copious cups of freshly brewed coffee and planned our day. When to eat, sleep and walk – the perfect cure for Covid blues.
The other bonus is that the stylist also has a sweet tooth. And that doesn’t mean picking up the odd pastry from Ile de Pain, it’s making your own yogurt and condensed milk tart which looks and tastes as if a pastry chef was involved!
Thinking about living and lifestyle, because that’s what it is, I suddenly remembered an earlier trip to Istanbul where a group of us (these two creatives included) filled up a small apartment block. On Christmas eve, Hennie and AB were in charge of proceedings which of course turned out to be quite spectacular even with simple means.
But what stood out for me most was Hennie popping out to go and forage some rosemary he had spotted on one of our walks to the Hagia Sofia.
So actually, I should have known. My mother always said that I knew how to pick my friends, all of whom are accomplished in so many ways. There always was method to my madness but it obviously helps to find these rare birds if you are a veteran arts journalists living in a creative world.
And to make sure we kicked off on the best cultural note, we slept over at Harrie Siertsema’s MAPSA (Modern Art Projects South Africa) in Richmond for the most rewarding art experience with their smartly and generously stocked gallery on site.
And now we can let our minds wander and dream … for next time.
In this time of Covid it is up to artists and related organisations to be creative because no one else is going to do that for them.
And it is interesting to see in these dire circumstances how the innovations keep flowing. If anyone knows how to turn nothing into something, it is the artistic community.
A director’s course for aspirant as well as experienced directors is the latest project from the KKNK (Klein Karoo National Arts Festival).
The first (of hopefully many) KKNK/NATi Studio project is a directing course to be presented by acclaimed veteran director Marthinus Basson (Tom Lanoye’s Koningin Lear, Mama Medea and Bloed en Rose and premieres of most of Reza de Wet’s work amongst others), someone who should excite both potential and established directors.
Two things come to mind immediately. Basson, who is passionate about teaching and one of the best in the business, has a wealth of knowledge to impart and what better time, when many of our stages are still closed for viable performances, to hone your skills, whether novice or practitioner.
Their aim (in conjunction with NATi – the Nasionale Afrikaanse Teater-inisiatief) is to add value to the arts as they unlock the potential of promising directors. “The main purpose is to create work for artists,” says Basson.
I was upset a few years back when the University of Stellenbosch’s drama department seemed to show a lack of insight when not doing everything in their power to hold on to this particular lecturer, but this is simply the best news. I can think of many who would benefit and add to their riches with this director’s insight and abundant creativity. It starts with his choice of text, the way he thinks about every production and his knowledge which has no equal.
The 9-month long course will guide participants through a number of texts from different genres and time periods. Basson will zoom in on interpretation, directing and design, concept development, performance challenges for actors and how directors can manage these.
“This director’s course is a wonderful opportunity for theatre makers to hone core skills and critical thought,” says Hugo Theart, artistic director of the KKNK. “And what a privilege to learn from one of this country’s most experienced directors. Not only is he one of our best directors, he is also regarded as one of the best mentors and teachers. It is a rare opportunity and an honour for the KKNK in combination with NATi to facilitate this season.”
Basson himself is nervously excited about the project. “It gives hope in a tough time for the performing arts and offers a welcome opportunity for theatre makers to gather regularly, inspire one another, study a few exceptional texts in depth, dream and think about them while also questioning – and hopefully add passion and fire to the neglected theatre community.”
Something he is anticipating is gaining the insight of 12 new artists and to get to know 12 fellow artists during the lengthy course. “The first session will probably be taken up by a kind of meet-and-greet,” he says and then they will get stuck into reading the first text. “Everyone has to participate actively. Ideally a directing course should be a live event,” he says and he is determined that it will not be about him giving lectures. “Once everyone has read the text, ideas should determine what follows. People never feel the same about things,” and I suspect, that’s what gets this director going.
Cornelia Faasen, CEO of NATi, says Covid-19 has given them the time to reflect about the fault lines in some productions. “We have had the grace of time to see how to approach these challenges. It is good that the KKNK is tackling projects rather than productions because these are often too expensive to fail.”
She adds that she’s excited about the future of KKNK/NATi Studio projects – as she should be.
At the recent theatre/dance-driven Take-a-STAND dialogues, the desire and need for mentorship was a high priority for young and established artists. And we have a wealth of artists who can contribute with Basson leading the pack.
The course consists of two formal group sessions of between three and four hours twice a month and will be presented online on Sunday afternoons. Live sessions will only start if the impact of Covid-19 allows it
The chosen texts will be read and discussed with Basson handing out tasks in preparation for the following session. Already he speaks enthusiastically about some of the selected works. He is, for example, looking at Bartho Smit’s Moeder Hanna in contrast to Friedrich Durrenmatt’s Die Besoek van die ou Dame. And starting out with an Afrikaans translation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream followed by Die Park by Botho Strauss which plays like the converse. Even explaining his choices already points to the value this course will have for any prospective participant.
With thorough feedback, they will sharpen their critical thinking and heighten their creative impulses. Basson will also be assisted by experienced set designers, writers, directors and actors. He has worked with the best which makes his selection an easy one.
The sessions will start at the end of the month on March 28 and those participating must attend every session.
Financial assistance is available and all candidates must be older than 18 and understand Afrikaans.
Two groups are participating. Twelve candidates will be selected as the core group and they should be involved in the theatre industry in some way. But to stretch the reach of the project, further candidates will be invited to listen in as observers. This is aimed at especially young
talent not necessarily involved in the industry professionally yet and could include drama students.
When you are invited to the final meal at a favourite restaurant, there’s naturally some excitement about the event – but also a sadness because of all the memories. DIANE DE BEER predicts this might not be their swan song:
Especially in these Covid19 times, it’s been a tough environment for the restaurant industry. There is, however, one beacon of hope and that is the diners’ awareness about how much they miss restaurants when they’re not there.
Being human as we all are, we tend to take our luxuries for granted until someone takes them away. The place I’m talking about is Tshwane’s Brasserie de Paris, where proprietor Sarie Jooste Jordaan magically created a very special restaurant. It’s something she and architect husband Johan Jooste almost fell into when they were invited by patron-chef Christian du Bois to become partners in his business.
When he decided to leave, Jooste-Jordaan knew she had the perfect setup. Her husband’s father Karel Jooste had designed and built one of Pretoria’s iconic homes in Waterkloof and while some might argue it’s not the perfect home, it turned out to be the perfect dining venue.
And then they had something to live up to. Expectations were set but Jooste Jordaan had a few aces up her sleeve. Her niece Elze Roome was a trained chef, which made this the perfect solution – a match made in heaven.
That was 26 years ago and in the meantime and a lifetime in the world of a chef, Roome (with her brother as partner and many adventures in-between) has opened a Tashas in Times Square and you just have to experience the buzz to know that they have struck gold – or more likely, they know what they’re doing.
“It all happened quite organically,” notes Roome, who has kept in touch with all the chefs who followed her at Brasserie about the celebratory final meal. Ané Wait (now from Buffelsfontein Beesboerdery in Greenlyn), Marlise Whelan (lecturer at Capitol Hotel School) and Loodt van Niekerk who pleaded to be head chef on the day because he hadn’t been one previously.
All of these chefs have a classic slant and drawing up the menu was a full-on team effort. For example, Roome explains that Whelan had created the original apple tart but Wait had refined it. It was a no brainer that it would be the dessert on the day.
Reading through the menu, memories flooded back, as they had put together almost a prototype of everything Brasserie represented. Starting with an amuse bouche of blue cheese cream and figs as well as Springbok carpaccio, these were started with a celebratory welcoming sparkling wine on their amazing roof, which probably everyone there had probably experienced in some madcap dinner. Ours was an Easter affair and one of the best evenings I can remember with the stars all aligning for a spectacular event all those years back.
But that’s what Brasserie has always been. I can’t remember them ever not getting it right. As chef Hennie Fisher always says about them: “One of my personal most favourite elegant dining choices – a sophisticated mix of old world charm and modern flair. And never broke the bank!”
Following Covid protocols as they would, the restaurant again proved its many assets because of the way we were all protected and yet not without managing to create the fondly remembered Brasserie ambience.
I was blessed to be in the company of a chef and two wine connoisseurs, so I knew this was going to be special. Leaving the wine in their capable hands, the men u prompted them to kick off with a white wine (Lismore Viognier) followed by a red (Thelema Merlot 2017).
Once seated we were first presented with a smoked salmon rösti, a smart choice because of the combo and the distinct flavours. Just the right entrée to get you hungry and with what was to follow, we needed that.
A plump scallop, sharp green pea purée and bacon crisp richly finished the seafood side of the menu. Following these teasers, Brasserie got stuck into the serious stuff: meat. I knew when the Japanese Embassy a few years back invited me to lunch here, it was a huge nod of approval. They were especially guided by the quality of meat and I suspect, the no-nonsense approach to things and the stylish setting also appealed to their specific sensibilities.
The trio of meat dishes was led by duck breast and sauce bigarade (orange sauce), a classic combination, followed by lamb loin, basil oil and wild mushroom and completed with a beef fillet, potato crisps and Bearnaise. These were all melt-in-the-mouth
And if it sounds like a mouthful, that’s exactly what it was and still remains my best way of sampling food: a tasting menu. This one was obviously substantial but for those of us riffing on nostalgia, this gang of superb chefs all had a role in establishing this kitchen and to come together in this way, could not make a stronger statement.
Finishing with the prettiest of apple tarts and mignardise with coffee, it was the perfect dining experience and especially savoured because of the people, the place and of course the times.
My hat off to the gracious Sarie Jooste Jordaan who had no plans to run a restaurant, but given the splendid setting and the right ingredients to make it work her way, in the end it was truly a grand affair.
I remember, part of the original idea was to stick to Du Bois’s menu guidelines and while settling in and finding their feet, they did exactly that. But having established the basic rules they could then start playing around, making it their own.
And that they did with classic flair and flourish. These are peculiar times and I know this is a business that isn’t easy but I just have a feeling that this is not the last we hear from the indomitable Sarie. So I’m tipping my hat to all the chefs for a fantastic experience in the Jooste house – once again. But I’m holding my breath before saying final goodbyes…
Life is slowly and almost silently returning to the Market Theatre – just in time to benefit from President Ramaphosa’s latest concessions doubling on the 50 seats already conceded.
Artistic director James Ngcobo kicks off tonight (running until March 28 starting at 6pm but check opening times on specific days) with his annual Black History Month production also celebrating the 45th anniversary year of The Market. Showcasing an African American playwright and in the past – as now, giving him the opportunity to spotlight some of the hottest young playwrights from the US.
The title of this year’s production, Pass Over, is suggestive of many things depending where you come from and whether you are religious, but it is also a play that has been inspired (as many before) by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It features two young black men, Moses and Kitch, who are forever stuck in a cyclical existential conundrum: how do we get off this street corner and into paradise?
But they keep busy by swapping visions of the promised land, imagining all the delights that await them there. Into this conversation steps a white man, Mister (a name that already suggests many different avenues in this context), and he startles the two young men with his preppy demeanour. He has lost his way while heading to his mother’s house to bring a basket of food. With this seemingly bottomless basket packed with delicious treats Mister is blissfully free and bursting with potential tralala…
He leaves shortly after the entrance of Ossifer (a jumble of letters which could also make up officer), a white policeman … and naturally the scene is set for many contemporary struggles while referencing both Beckett and Exodus with obvious intent.
Written by Antoinette Nwandu, a New York playwright, it premiered a few years back at Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre as well as travelling to London. She has been honoured with amongst others The Whiting Award, The Paula Vogel Playwriting Award, The Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, The Negro Ensemble Company’s Douglas Turner Ward Prize, and a Literary Fellowship at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College with a bachelor’s degree in English and holds a Master’s of Science degree in Cultural Politics from the University of Edinburgh, and an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU Tisch School of the Arts.
What appealed to Ngcobo is that it is a play that speaks to the now and with so much happening in the US (and around the world on a race and oppression level if you look at the Time Next 100 list) with especially Black Lives Matter, all of that seems especially (and rightfully) heightened. “It just makes for interesting conversation,” he says. And even more than that. It seems finally, race has become the issue with Covid-19 bringing it into even sharper relief – and about time.
And the writing itself, notes Ngcobo. In a note from the playwright she explains that “the language is intentionally heightened, calculatedly rhythmic and playfully human. There is a kind of poetry and energy that is written into the words that Moses and Kitch use, which invites the audience to fully understand these characters and the world they inhabit.”
Ngcobo says because of the way it’s written that while dealing with tragic topics, it’s also very funny. “In rehearsal we are looking especially at the environment that gave birth to the text.” And he is especially excited about his casting of Kathu Ramabulana and Hungani Ndlovu as Moses and Kitsch and Charlie Bouguenon as Mister and the rest.
Pass Over is staged in commemoration of Black History Month and while mainly celebrated in America, Ngcobo believes that the play will inspire South Africans to have the tough conversations around issues of common interest including police brutality and white supremacy still flourishing long after apartheid.
It explores the unquestionable human spirit and the resilience of young black men who keep hoping for miracles. Moses and Kitch are struggling to survive on the tough streets of America. It’s a rare piece of politically charged theatre from a bold new American voice, just the kind of fighting spirit we need on stage in these crazy times to get audiences going.
Another project in the making is a return of Zakes Mda’s brilliant Mother of all Eating directed by Dom Gumede with Vusi Kunene back on stage joined by Thulani Nyembe. It’s a fantastic play for these times and should be a grand face-off between these two acclaimed actors and a welcome return to live theatre.
Corruption heads the issues in this tale set in Lesotho in 1992 which shows just what happens when power is allowed to go unchecked. It plays from March 12 to April 11.
Three online productions start at the same time with Avalon written and performed by Lunga Radebe and directed by Vice Motshabi Monageng (from March 12 to 21) revolving around Sabantu, a young nouveau riche who, desperate to save his mother’s life, takes advice from a traditional prophet to search for his grandmother’s grave in one of South Africa’s largest cemeteries. He is instructed to perform a ritual on the grave, which is meant to remove the black cloud hanging over his family. What seems like quite a straightforward task turns into something much more daunting.
The next one has the provocative title of A Vegan Killed my Marriage written and directed by Craig Freimond who hasn’t worked at The Market for quite some time and stars Aron McElroy. Streaming from March 26 to April 4, it tells the story of James, a meat eating man. He is however plugged into all the scares about meat and the climate catastrophe about to happen. It’s something he tries to ignore but a work trip shakes him out of his comfort zone. He turns vegetarian which turns into vegan which becomes a kind of crusade as this king of the braai, bans all meat from his home and declares it a meat-free zone.
Di a Paro Tsa Mama (My Mother’s Clothes) is written and directed by Rorisang Motuba with performance dates from May 21 to 31.
In line with Ngcobo’spassion for indigenous language plays, this one is set on the eve of their mother’s funeral, with two sisters, aged 23 and 29, sorting through her clothes in search of the perfect outfit to bury her in. Their sensitive nostalgia morphs into harrowing discoveries about death, grief and survival in what promises to be a sensitive piece.
Depending on what happens later in the year, these three might also make their way onto stage.
Another live performance is Rose (previously played by Annabel Linder at Theatre on the Square) starring the sublime Camilla Waldman in a surprise return to the Market stage. It has been quite some time and is also a return to his old stomping ground for previous artistic director Malcolm Purkey, taking the directing reins for this one.
Rose is a survivor. Her remarkable life began in 1920 in a tiny Russian village, took her to Warsaw’s ghettoes and a ship called The Exodus, and finally to the boardwalks of Atlantic City, the Arizona canyons and salsa-flavoured nights in Miami Beach.
It’s described as a sharply drawn portrait of a feisty Jewish woman and a moving reminder of some of the events that shaped the 20th century.
It plays in the John Kani Theatre from April 23 to June 6.
As inspired, later in the year, is a return of Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot directed by Ngcobo with two of the best, Mnedici Shabangu and Elton Landrew. And for the moment, that’s enough to keep theatre enthusiasts smiling.
Professional theatre makers and dancers were hard hit by the Covid pandemic, which cost them not only income but also sense of community. The Take-a-STAND Dialogues presented in Stellenbosch from February 19 to 21 aimed to reinvigorate this community with panel discussions featuring a diversity of voices from dance and theatre on challenges in the performing arts. The event was presented by the SU Woordfees and STAND (Sustaining Theatre and Dance) Foundation with the generous support of the Embassy of Netherlands and NATi. DIANE DE BEER reports:
The instigators: Gregory Maqoma, Conelia Faasen, Saartjie Botha, Mike van Graan:
“I believe our job is to be human because from the bottom (of our hearts), we hold deep faith, we’re resilient and passionate about bringing change to the world and we see the human spirit as more important than just building wealth – the true spirit of an artist.”
This was the starting premise of keynote speaker dancer/choreographer Gregory Maqoma addressing the topic Theatre for whom? Dance for what? Towards a rationale for theatre and dance in our contemporary world.
Making a link between the migrant workers who lived in hostels next to his childhood Soweto home whose dance (on weekends) he knew was a “deliberate psychic survival tool, a deliberate silencing of the harrowing voices of those they left behind and those they might never see again” and his own creativity and compulsion to dance, he says: “Every performance becomes a memory and when the lights go off and the curtain falls, a new history is written.”
And elaborating: “As an artist living in the binary of what is real and denied, I question the existence of living in this chaos, with realities so unbearable, I choose to override and escape by dancing, my body being one with itself, a moment where I care less about my country – at least the portion that doesn’t care about me, so yes I do ask, dance for what?
Yet the ambassador of The Netherlands, Han Peters, underlined: “Culture gives us a lens to look at reality, perhaps even transform, and this is how we cope.”
Which is something Maqoma has always understood; presenting powerful work and establishing an international presence.
And throughout the weekend, moving from one panel discussion to the next with changing panellists, artists from both theatre and dance reviewed and tried to revise their changed worlds with the aim of constructing a stronger community with cohesive future plans.
“This is a time of crisis,” said a speaker. “It’s a situation that had to happen and has been a huge wake-up call,” noted Maqoma, who has often spoken out about the precarious world of artists in this country. This is highlighted by the fact that even his successful Vuyani Dance Company rehearses and works in an uncomfortable environment rather than accommodating rehearsal spaces of their own.
He emphasised that in circumstances where there was no opportunity to earn a living, the fragility of the industry was again at the forefront. “It feels as if a hurricane flooded our space,” he said. And this in a milieu where the arts is an escape from poverty for many youngsters entering this world. Often their only way out.
And yet as another panellist pointed out, “We have a wealth of resources. We should keep on engaging government but also dip into and recognise our own resources,” which was a welcome turning of the gaze to new frontiers away from tired tropes that bring no benefits. If things didn’t change in good times, it is hopeless to imagine a sudden about-turn in times as dire as the unfamiliar and unknown pandemic.
Again and again the power of the arts was underlined. It’s not something that is ever going away. It’s not something out there,” said a participant. “It’s part of everyone and everything.”
Exploring different avenues, problems and solutions, one of the biggest roadblocks identified is access on different levels. And as pointed out by many panellists, it is something that could easily be fixed.
One artist who is changing the lives of many youngsters told how rehearsal space at Artscape was offered to her at R400 a day. She retorted that she could afford to pay perhaps R400 a month. And in the end, that was conceded.
Think how often around the country theatres are empty in-between performances and how many rehearsal spaces could become available to artists with nowhere to turn.
Accessing conversation and in that way mentorship is another easily fixed yet major stumbling block for many entry-level artists. One acclaimed young artist pointed out how filing tax returns became a nightmare in a life that is stretched simply trying to survive. Or writing proposals for funding, a lifeline which keeps many artists employed and creating.
Many prospective life-changing questions arose when someone pointed out that the arts were already broken before the crisis of Covid19. “How do we build something new from below? We need to invent new currencies,” said another. “How do we integrate?” asked yet another.
Dance, for example, said one panellist is a healing tool for those who are broken, something that can be said for all creativity. “There is a calling involved.”
As another artist reminded everyone, theirs is not simply a career. “There’s a propellor pushing you forward.” But in all of this, there has to be an engagement with the economy and a confrontation of the many challenges artists face – but together is where the strength lies.
As theatre maker Jefferson Tshabalala explained, he has long ago discovered where his economy lies. “We are not always fully utilising the periphery. My foyer is my domain,” he elaborated. “(With every production, for example) artists need to build an echo system for your evening.”
All of this came about when he realised as a theatre maker he is predominantly dealing with a public who is not interested in plays. Merchandising is where he makes his money and this then goes towards funding his next project. Through the merchandising and his success, he is also building a brand and a future theatre audience – thus fully engaging every space he claims at any specific time.
He had actor/playwright/director Wessel Pretorius very excited as he noted that he had never given merchandise a second thought. What Tshabalala was doing is showing a different way. For example, if Pretorius could have found a way of also translating his first hugely successful play Ont (later translated into English as Undone) into Xhosa, just think of the audiences opening up to him. “The way in is theatre,” said Nwabisa Plaatjie, “but the outcome not always theatrical.”
“We have to think how we can multiply and stretch one production,” Tshabalala explained.
This points to both currency and sustainability. Business plays an important part and artists have to understand that currency is not the enemy. “With autonomy, you are able to curate your own art,” agreed another panellist.
The exciting thing about the coming together of these particular communities was the recognition that with the devastation of the pandemic, new avenues and thinking needed to be explored.
Why bank on something that wasn’t there in the first place? Instead turn to the many strengths and resources available in the broader arts community and in that way strengthen the precarious pathways sometimes followed in the past because there simply weren’t any options.
While veterans in the business could show newbies the way in both practical and artistic terms, the youngsters who are familiar living in a digital world can show those less comfortable new ways of operating. “We have to see the internet as a benefit,” said one young participant. And in these times, that has become obvious. In a profession that often teeters on the brink, it has to embrace every available resource and everyone should be available to give a helping hand.
Theatres can be more embracing of the wider community by opening up their facilities to creatives, who in the long run will then become contributing artists as they are given some protection to operate and not always having to focus on simply surviving.
Those of us working with the arts all know the problems – starting with funding. But focusing purely on solving issues that seem to have a mind of their own instead of exploring new avenues makes no sense.
And that is what felt different listening to the artists speaking. It was as though many of them understood that this is a time without any fallback options. Sink or swim – and fortunately for those of us watching, artists have no choice – they are creative and will come up with a vision that hopefully is more sustainable than in the past.
It also felt as if many of those in attendance grabbed this opportunity as a chance to navigate a much more cohesive path.
In this way many found an opportunity to re-evaluate and fix the foundation of their lives. Reskilling and exploring new avenues that haven’t been tried before was another suggestion.
Access is something that has to be evaluated and managed. We all know that in this country with its past, it is still an obstacle for too many. “Let’s develop the places that need developing,” said panellist Nancy Sekhokoane. “If you give an artist a platform, he/she will be creative.”
It’s about access to knowledge and institutions. Who opens those doors and who decides who is allowed to enter?
One of the topics that I found quite frustrating was the one exploring African aesthetic in dance and theatre. For anyone watching performances around the country – dance and theatre – it’s who we are and what we create.
Long gone are the days where colour is a determining factor. Language might still be a hindrance, but in a country with 11 official languages we still have to find that particular solution.
Just don’t tell me that you can’t see this continent in almost every production on local stages. Even when we do the classics, a local sensibility, even if it happens simply in the casting will determine the outcome and that is what we need to recognise and celebrate. We don’t always see it, because we’re spoilt.
“We come from here and our stories are from here.” And that’s it!
The excitement of local performance is because of the riches the diversity of our art landscape holds. For too long, art was created by too few for too few. Fortunately our stages changed dramatically bringing with it a kaleidoscope that benefits who we are and who we hope to become.
“Does is make my art less African if I wear a ballgown and dance to Bach?” asked Maqoma. What it does, is make it uniquely African. And that’s what we love and should cherish.
Architect/academic ‘Ora Joubert is adamant that her book celebrating young South African architectural students calls for a wider audience. She tells DIANE DE BEER why she feels the acknowledgement is important – and she’s absolutely right:
As a former head of two architecture schools in the country and an outspoken critic of poorly considered architecture, Professor ‘Ora Joubert is often remembered for the public outcry that ensued following the publication in a national newspaper of her inaugural address at the University of Pretoria.
Her critical stance against the South African obsession with faux Tuscan (or “Boere-Toskaans” as it was dubbed derogatorily) coupled with the incessant questioning of what then qualifies as authentic, contemporary South African architecture, compelled her to compile an anthology of meritorious work.
The publication in 2009 of 10+years 100+buildings – architecture in a democratic South Africa(Cape Town: Bell-Roberts Publishing) was well acclaimed and received an Award of Excellence from the South African Institute of Architecture.
The “blue book” (as referred to by students) was followed a couple of years back by a yellow version: another 480-page tome titled 10+years 100 projects – architecture in a democratic South Africa(Cape Town: Bell-Roberts Publishing) though, this time, celebrating the creative endeavours of South African students of architecture which receives hardly any recognition outside the colloquial confines of the architectural fraternity.
Per chapter, the book features exceptional final-year design projects by future architects from the respective South African universities offering tuition in architecture. Although the projects are intrinsically visionary, I was nevertheless astounded by the work ethic, the responsible design ethos and the remarkable aesthetic sensibilities on display.
Joubert describes 10+years 100 projects as an impressive record of the theoretical discourse within our particular socio-economic and political circumstances. The book is also a barometer to gauge how radically our design priorities have shifted in recent years and is both a reminder – if not reprimand – of where our architectural output should be situated.
“The making of meaningful place with limited and sustainable resource in a biosphere as remarkably diverse as ours, remains as fundamental to the architectural discourse as it was centuries ago – albeit far less unselfconscious and far more self-referential; inevitably, of more considered social, urban and environmental consequences,” she says.
Reflecting on the themes adopted by the different schools of architecture, Joubert points out that architecture is by definition a reflection of a particular zeitgeist: “The collection of projects is clearly situated in South Africa’s socio-political paradigm, with students acutely aware of the country’s social discrepancies, spatial distortions and economic disparities. This is compounded by the calamities of negligent environmental practices and their impact on the built fabric.”
Presumed differently to anywhere else in the world, the themes explored by South African students are noticeably ‘serious’ with candidates positively ‘burdened’ by a sense of historic accountability, as well as a pronounced societal and environmental responsiveness. Yet, with our current and ongoing economic catastrophe, especially amongst the young, it is encouraging that future professionals are devising innovative built alternatives.
The reader is exposed to a journey through a South African cultural kaleidoscope where an extraordinary narrative unfolds.
In broad brush strokes, students from the University of KwaZulu-Natal are in the forefront of addressing the plight of the indigent in urban areas through the fostering of skills-development programmes.
Cameron Finnie’s Skills Development Centre, revives the arts and crafts discourse of the early 20th century in a contemporary and appropriately South African context, whereas Dennis-Lee Stols’ Cardboard Recycling Facility addresses the needs of the informal recyclers that have become a permanent feature of our cities. In turn, Memory Market by Nischolan Pillay, celebrates the achievements of South Africa’s Indian community and pertinently adopts an architectural regionalist approach rather than a somewhat-passè, culturally-driven stylism.
Students from the University of Tshwane engage in the humanising of the institutional facilities, as well as imbuing rudimentary public amenities with civic dignity. One such example is Adriaan Louw’s Low-security Correctional Facility which recognises the potency of architecture in aiding human rehabilitation, for not only the inmates but in the long term the whole society. Another is the community responsive Pretoria Police Headquarters by Danie Steenkamp and a deliberate attempt to alter societal preconceptions through built form. The Culture Heritage Centre by Vidette McLellan transforms the Old Synagogue in Pretoria (where the Rivonia Trial was held) into a centre of preservation of endangered languages and cultures, which could well contribute significantly to both our capital and capitol collective.
The Nelson Mandela University can be singled out –in our current health crisis – for their proposals of much-needed healthcare and educational facilities in especially township environments, with distinct urban and community intent. These objectives are vividly demonstrated in Nikhil Tricam’s proposed Mother and Child Centre for Kwazakhele in the Eastern Cape, as well as the generic Community School Cluster developed by Ruan Marsh. The Port Elizabeth Railway Intermodal Interchange by Mofulatsi Rampou draws attention to vital role that well-designed transport infrastructure plays in the economic mobility of any country’s inhabitants and glaringly absent locally.
For the students from the University of Pretoria, the so-called productive landscape calls for enquiry, promoting an eco-systemic integration of recycled buildings, innovative economic production and community profiting. Proposals range from a Perfumery & Glass-blowing Facility (Norbert Koch) situated in a former flourmill, a sewage plant converted into a Textile Mill (Heidi van Eeden) to a Brass Foundry (Cliff Gouws) in a former military installation. The rejuvenation and contemporary use of the number of forts on the periphery of Pretoria and dating from the Anglo-Boer/South African Wars also came under scrutiny.
Identity and memory are at the heart of the University of the Free State design projects with explosive results. Wagener Hancke’s Magerfontein Mausoleum heeds the oversimplification of the trauma that has cast a long shadow across the country’s subsequent history, while Bernard Viljoen’s N(9) Museum explores – in abstract terms – the abundance of nothingness on a stretch of road between Aberdeen and Willowmore in the Karoo. Ilani du Plessis’s Centre for Indigenous Knowledge is imagined at the entrance of Pretoria’s Freedom Park with the site interpreted according to ancient African practices of divination. The Museum for Labour designed by Katie Salzmann reminds us of the immeasurable price of sweat equity and is theatrically (and not without irony) situated on the edge of Kimberley’s Big Hole.
The University of the Witwatersrand challenges everything from corporate thresholds, mining monopolies to funerary practices through alternative architectural appropriations. Nontokozo Mhlungu’s Refugee Sanctuary for Hillbrow explores the restorative and therapeutic role of architecture in a sadly xenophobic-riddled environment, whereas Amit Nanoo’s Hindu Funerary Facility (appropriately titled an “existential theatre”) conceptualises a reincarnated form of architectural expression. And in an environment where mining still exerts considerable influence, Yvonne Brecher proposes an Opera & Choral Chamber in a former mineshaft – described as a portal to an underworld inaccessible to the public, whilst drawing attention to the fact that our mining landmarks are fast becoming relics of a burdened past.
From the University of Johannesburg, the topics range from Dirk Coetzer’s uncanny Acid Mine-water Purification Stations, envisaging multivalent, self-sustaining habitable environments, to Daniel Lyonga’s Regional Home Affairs Offices, which spatially interrogates how ‘public’ our public services really are. In Dark City – an illicit occupation of vertical settlements in the heart of Johannesburg – Harold Johnson introduces crucial acupunctural interventions to alleviate an acute housing shortage.
The students from the University of Cape Town reach across time and space with Maria Gabriella Aragão’s District Six Memorial which explores the capacity of architecture to capture the memory of the loss as a result of forced removals, while Danielle Reimers designed multi-facetted Playgrounds for Change to improve fundamental infrastructural integration between the Mother City and its satellite outskirts. Michael Lewis proposes a ‘violent’ Exhibition Facility for the second-oldest colonial building in the country, the Slave Lodge built in 1679, manifesting as an intricate geometric-inspired architectural contortion.
This is cherry picking from the 100 projects of which many more capture the imagination. What ‘Ora Joubert hoped to achieve is to give substance to these projects described as “fantasy” and to create a platform where the work of our young design talent in architecture could be captured.
What encourage Joubert was that the students took from a negative past and turned it into a positive by designing responsibly, taking their world into consideration and trying to fuse that past with the future by not making the same mistakes.
And dealing – hopefully – architecturally, with our apartheid legacy in a responsible but also hugely creative manner.
Now we have to hold thumbs that some of these student dream projects will some day be turned into reality. In the meantime, page through this tome if you have the chance and admire what could be our future. The book is packed with imaginations running wild but wonderfully so. And with their eye on the future, students were intent on making a difference – something this country needs to embrace.
In a world flooded with new books daily, it is difficult to find a voice as unique as that of Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu. With much acclaim and a big prize for her first novel, one could have expected some hesitancy with her second attempt. But this writer outsmarted us all by completing this latest novel even before all the accolades for the first started pouring in. DIANE DE BEER revels in her story and The History of Man:\
If you have read last year’s winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s The Theory of Flight, you would have recognised a unique voice.
Her latest, The History of Man, is further evidence of that. In fact, it’s hardly recognisable as the same writer and took me completely by surprise – fortunately in the best possible sense.
These past few years, reading as much as I did, I realised that what I loved best was for writers to overwhelm me with their originality. Siphiwe does that and so much more. After all, originality alone won’t make it. But she has already shared her abundant writing skills.
Often a second novel after the success of a debut can be a bit of a downer –from the writing or reading point of view, but this writer outsmarted us all. The second was already written when she won acclaim for the first!
Asking about her choice of follow-up story, she responded with the explanation that the question assumes she has any say in the matter. “For me the wonderful thing about writing is that it is something that happens to me. The character, Emil Coetzee, first came to me in 2007 or 2008 – I remember jotting down a few things about him then. He plays a role in The Theory of Flight, albeit a small one. That said, I had no idea that I would write The History of Man as a follow-up to The Theory of Flight.”
She notes that as her first novel was a critique of the post-colonial moment, it made sense to her, given her love of history, that she would want to explore and critique the colonial moment.
“Given what I wanted to explore about the colonial moment and the narrative it creates – its effects on the coloniser and the colonised; its particular kind of masculinity; its dependence on the idea of progress; its insularity and superficiality; its many inventions and dichotomies (white superiority/supremacy, black/other inferiority, active men/passive women etc.); and, most importantly for me, its privileging of certain voices (white/male) over others and the many silences that that creates – it just made sense to have a white, male protagonist through whom the story would be focalised. And that is how Emil Coetzee’s story became the follow-up to Imogen Zula Nyoni’s story.”
What fascinated me in the reading was how seemingly comfortably this black female author crawled under the skin of a white supremacist male. I can see some conjuring up all kinds of dilemmas, the way we appropriate voices etc. but especially in Siphiwe’s case, didn’t it make her skin crawl? For me when reading, my mind kept going to specific South African characters dubbed Prime Evil and Dr Death in the press.
That’s why we need fresh voices telling specific stories. What she set out to do was write a character that was multi-dimensional, complicated and believable, she says. She ticks all the boxes.
In fact, what I loved about the character was that he wasn’t stereotypical – the kind of person one would imagine could commit the worst atrocities against his fellow human beings. If anything, he almost disappears into the background, or as a man apart.
“When Emil Coetzee’s character first came to me I admit that he was not a particularly sympathetic character. He was a stereotype and a caricature – a womanising, racist and sexist white man with power – and, quite frankly, offended many of my black feminist ideals and sensibilities.
“At the time, I think I thought that that was a strong enough character to build a story on, so I am very happy that I did not write it then because that is not a novel that even I want to read. The saving grace came when I moved beyond the what – womanising, racist and sexist white man with power – to the how (how does someone get to be this way) and most importantly the why (why does someone get to be this way).”
And that she achieves brilliantly. While I was still trying to work out what she was trying to do because the writing and telling of this particular story was so different from her first outing – with The Theory of Flight in my mind – I was drawn into the intriguing life of a man whose actions seemed to be determined by things outside of him rather than an inner driving force.
“I was writing a character whose experience, for the most part, is different from my own. However, I found entry points, similarities in our experiences that allowed me to empathise with the character and begin to understand his inner world on a deeper level. These are a few of the entry points that I used – the boarding school experience, growing up in the City of Kings, falling in love with the savanna.
“Once I could empathise with Emil Coetzee, I understood his character fully and knew what kind of narrative he would like to exist in – in terms of plot, tone, imagery etc. For instance, I knew Emil Coetzee would only be fully comfortable in a realist novel with a linear plot because that is what makes sense to and of him. I also knew that he could not be surrounded by language that seemed too poetic because he would be deeply suspicious of that kind of language and very uncomfortable in it.”
And that’s why she says the style of a book is determined by the characters. “I have to be true to the characters in my story,” she notes. “I know this is a (frustratingly) writerly thing to say, but I listen to the characters and let them guide me. I am also guided by what the story is ultimately trying to achieve.”
And while she says she worries about how the realism of her second book will received after The Theory of Flight, which many read as magic realism, she needn’t worry.
As a writer, she is a creative force. Even though I lost my heart to her first book, this second one stayed with me for the longest time. South Africa had its own Emil Coetzees and perhaps that is what I found so disturbing on meeting this man who seemed uncomfortable in his own skin and seemingly almost thoughtlessly allowed outside forces to determine his life.
With lockdown in full swing by the time The History of Man appeared on bookshelves, Siphiwe describes herself as being in the best place to have a productive lockdown. She was lucky enough to be on a writing fellowship. “In February I arrived in Johannesburg as part of an international cohort for a four-month-long fellowship at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS). My plan was to work on the first draft of my fourth manuscript, which I did. Then lockdown happened and JIAS kindly extended their fellowship until all of us could safely return to our home countries and so I had time to polish up and finalise my third manuscript, which I wrote last year.”
And if you are wondering how these stories just keep tumbling out, she’s ready with an answer: “There is a fifth book in my head. I think it definitely helps that I am writing a series of interconnected novels because until the series is done there will always be the next book.”
So get onto the second one now. If her record holds fast, you will be just in time for the third one to drop.
And this reader certainly feels blessed to have discovered this author who not only writes about a world that is sadly familiar, but also masterfully achieves making sense of it.