Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking With Dorothy Ann Gould and Mark Graham Wilson

Pictures: Lungelo Mbulwana


Dorothy Ann1
Dorothy Ann Gould as Joan Didion

It took someone the quality of writer Joan Didion to get actor Dorothy Ann Gould and director Mark Graham Wilson together for a stage production following their much-acclaimed Hello and Goodbye with her husband Michael Maxwell, a decade ago. They speak to DIANE DE BEER about The Year of Magical Thinking that opens on March 9 and runs until April 1 at The Market’s Barney Simon Theatre in Joburg:


Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

Thus begins the American writer Joan Didion’s haunting memoir of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The unexpected event ended a partnership of 40 years in a second, just days after their only child, Quintana, had fallen dangerously ill and slipped into a coma.

During Didion’s New York promotion of the recently published memoir, Quintana became seriously ill again. Following massive brain surgery, she died. She was 39.

Following these catastrophic events, it was the famed director David Hare who asked Didion to change her memoir into a play and six months after her second tragedy, the death of her daughter, she began working on the play. This time she was dealing with both the death of her partner and her daughter – a double tragedy.

Both director and actor knew this was the play that would embolden their stage partnership. It is said that The Year of Magical Thinking is a journey through that most universal experience of human pain: bereavement. And while it is frequently harrowing, it is also often amusing and, ultimately has been described as an expression of the power love has to give life meaning. All of that describes the remarkable writer Joan Didion and that is what struck both Graham Wilson and Gould.

How much can one person take? That’s the question Gould asked herself when reading the memoir. “We all cope differently,” she acknowledges but we all encounter these kinds of tragedies at some point in our lives.

It is the way Didion thinks, the way she escapes, the way she writes that makes this such a harrowing yet healing experience and just thinking about Gould and Graham Wilson tackling this depth of feeling is exciting. Watching them work, the detail and thought that goes into every breath, the way they battle one another to get to the truth, is extraordinary and the stuff theatre is made of.

“It’s the scale of the mountain of loss that’s daunting,” says Gould as she wonders about Didion’s husband’s death who she believes just “let go of the fence,” because he couldn’t cope with the sadness of his daughter’s coma. “Some people do that, and I think he told Joan that he was going, he warned her. But she wasn’t listening.” Gould was also affected by the ordinary circumstances in which tragedy occurs hence the opening stanzas of this marvelous text.

“She goes on a big journey with this lament but because she’s deprecating and wry, it is bearable to witness,” is how Gould explains it. She talks for example about the games Didion plays with her mind to cope, something we will all recognize.

How often do we not wish for a different outcome when we go to sleep and hoping for comfort when we wake up? “Joan wills things to turn around, believes she can shift reality with her strong will,” says Gould. We all recognise those games we play with the universe.

For Graham Wilson, one of the joys of the text is the perfection. “There’s not a word you want to cut, not a word out of place,” he says. Gould at the time we were speaking was still worried about remembering her words because we are speaking solo performance and 62 pages of monologue.

But we’re also dealing with someone who knows how to work through tough situations. She started memorizing the text earlier than she would have normally because she knew how important it was to get this one to a point where she didn’t even have to think about what she was saying.

It’s all in the text. The tension is held in what is being said, notes Graham Wilson, and as importantly being left unsaid. That was why every word is so important. “It isn’t a conventional play,” he acknowledges, but that is why this pairing is so valuable. Both these artists are risk takers, daring with their art and pushing the boundaries. Gould feels safe with Graham Wilson because they have worked successfully together before and that allows her to step beyond her comfort zone – to the benefit of audiences.

For Graham Wilson returning to stage after many years in the television world of soapies where he has been in the writing side because of family commitments and financial stability, this project is terrifying – but in the best sense of the word. “It’s such an exposed world,” he says of the stage. And he regards himself as very private. He likes being out of sight, but working in live theatre changes that.

To watch these two experienced artists work, delve into the work, manage every movement, every thought, how something should be placed, when she should turn and how to connect with her audience, is quite something. It’s an exciting and beautiful play written by a woman who has an extraordinary ability to express her deepest feelings in a most unusual fashion.

Gould in her own way has all those qualities on a different level and that’s why this is such a heavenly match. With Graham Wilson as her guide, her star gazer, the two of them will make theatre magic. All the ingredients are there – and this is not above expectation.

“I have to channel her energy of thought,” says Gould about the process.

This is only the second day of rehearsal and already they’re grappling with meaning and movement – the words flowing as if they come from the actress herself.

And she takes flight.



Sylvaine Strike and Jenine Collocott – Homage to Inspired and Inspiring Artists


Artists are the people I love writing about most.

They’re creative, think out of the box, live to entertain and make people smile, think, dream, cry and much more – all at the same time.  They teach, learn, tell stories, show us how to view the world differently, how to admire and accept or simply entertain to take us away from a harsh world – if only for a moment.

Talking to two remarkable women artists recently, I was reminded of the privilege to be given access to their work but also to the magic they achieve through blood, sweat and tears. And in the artistic world, especially at this moment in time, stage is probably bottom of the rung. Not for those of us who love theatre but for the multitudes who haven’t discovered it yet.

Jenine Collocott
Jenine Collocott

Jenine Collocott, artist extraordinaire and director, most recently formed a new theatre company Contagious with actors James Cairns and Tarryn Bennett as well as long-time Fringe producers Simon and Helen Cooper with the aim of “producing independent fringe theatre that brings the creative freedom, simplicity and energy of the festival circuit to mainstream audiences” – so wherever you are in South Africa, watch out for them on their current rounds with their much loved The Snow Goose.

She’s currently rehearsing for a clowning show for the annual Oudtshoorn-based Klein Karoo National Arts Festival at the end of March (29 until April 4). Even though she trained for this specifically in Italy, it is her biggest venture in clowning with a cast of seven, most of whom she hasn’t worked with before and most of whom haven’t done any clowning before, even though you can see why they were picked.

Included are actors Jemma Kahn, Roberto Pombo and actor/producer De Klerk Oelofse who got the whole thing off the ground as the producer.

Speaking to a terrified Collocott is what got me excited. Even though what she was doing was mammoth, she was as excited as fearful in what can be said was a healthy balance.

Not only did she have to take her cast through what could be a painstaking process of becoming a clown, once there and only then, could they start to workshop the performance. Fortunately, she is working with a bunch of actors who know how to create their own work and with her as the gentle yet guiding teacher, the results will be something awesome to witness whether they pull it off or not.

“I’ve never seen anyone be as caring with a cast as Jenine was throughout this challenging process and she didn’t know us. I will never forget it,” says Oelofse who is on a mission to develop a skill set that is as broad as it is empowering.

They are at play in full swing as I write and few shows at this year’s Klein Karoo National Arts Festival excite me more than this novel attempt at a family show with something completely different. Titled Babbelagtig (which means something like chatterbox-ing) the idea was also fuelled by Oelofse’s response to the recent Slava Snow Show.

As with most things Collocott tackles, it’s innovative, imaginative and invigorating. Can it go wrong? Of course, but that’s how artists grow their craft – by pushing those boundaries and taking leaps not of faith but of grandeur and bravery because they’ve worked their way towards this.

Sylvaine Strike
Sylvaine Strike Photohraphed by Suzy Bernstein

No one works harder and with more precision than Sylvaine Strike, director extraordinaire, who has built a reputation for her unique work which is remarkable in its individuality. And she’s constantly changing like a chameleon the work she chooses – and then she makes it her own. It’s her particular Strike style that can be adapted to work with any play she selects in a way that’s quite astonishing.

From her standout The Travellers and Coupe in which she also played, the recently revived Black and Blue in which she recast  Atandwa Kani opposite herself to the two Molière plays The Miser followed by Tartuffe and now making a U-turn with Sam Shepard’s The Curse of the Starving Class, the road she travels allows her fans to jog along with excitement.

What will she do next and how is she going to approach this? Casting on its own is an art as she turns to Andrew Buckland for the extraordinary Tobacco and the Harmful Effects Thereoff and then adds extra bang with the exceptional Toni Morkel.

Gerard Bester, Brian Webber, Daniel Buckland and now Neil McCarthy have all taken on a special Strike hew when working with her. It’s as if her visual acuity allows her to use these actors, formidable as they usually are, in a completely new light.

With Buckland in Tobacco for example, she didn’t simply apply his amazing mime and clowning skills, she allowed the actor in him to flourish with accents of his many skills popping up to accentuate certain points she wanted to make.

If you watch her work, she plunges to a depth with detail that is quite exhausting but triumphs in the final production. Nothing escapes her eye which is both a visual and a visceral one and with her current Shepard production, she used music to tap out the rhythms for the actors to give their characters grounding.

“Shepard can be quite messy and chaotic,” she says, but in that is where you find the meaning and the magic of his message.

It is both what she brings and the way she does it that has netted her such a strong following. They know whatever she does, it will have intent and innovation. From the visual spectacle to the quirky casting, nothing is done without juggling many different balls to find the exact formation for this specific production.

That’s why a Strike show will sweep you off your feet – and then it lingers and plays with your mind.

Visual activist Zanele Muholi pays forward the South African way


Photographers in arms David Goldblatt and Zanele Muholi.

It’s a night to remember when the Ambassador of France to South Africa, Christophe Farnaud, (amidst loud ululating and excitement) honours a South African artist, in this instance visual activist Zanele Muholi, who was awarded the insignia of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters) in Pretoria earlier this week.

Muholi is an internationally acclaimed South African photographer whose work is embedded with advocacy on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community. As if this award wasn’t honour enough, for those of us gathered the night transformed into something extraordinary, something very South African given our past.

It’s not as though Muholi has had an easy pathway to recognition, but listening to her tell the story of her difficult route to this current recognition, one realises it is the destiny of special artists, that they will find a way.

For Muholi, it was through her mentor, acclaimed photographer David Goldblatt (who incidentally has also received the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres). She knew about him through the Market Photo Workshop, her other home, which he had founded. Muholi simply turned up at his doorstep one day and announced that he was to be her mentor. ”Usually they find you,” she said. But that was not her way. She knew that he was her man and would be the one to guide her.

That’s how their long journey began and how David and his wife Lily took her in, gave her food and care when she needed it and sponsored her international studies. She pointed to “this old white man” and explained how she got to know that “not all white people are racist!” They have obviously lost touch because, reading through the lines, Muholi didn’t want them to know that she needed money – again. It had been enough.

She didn’t know whether the Goldblatts would attend this special night for her, but of course, he is the mentor, she the protégé and as someone who spotted her talent from the beginning, he will surely never let go.

For many South Africans in the room, it was yet another of those stories that confirmed this country’s unique stance to experience humanity.

Ambassador Farnaud_Zanele_Muholi_Embassy_of_France 02
Ambassador Farnaud honours Zanele Muholi.

The Order of Arts and Letters, established in 1957 by the French Minister of Culture, rewards those who, through their ongoing engagement and creativity, have helped develop the arts and literature in France and throughout the world.

In rewarding Muholi, Ambassador Farnaud explained that France is proud to stand beside those who fight for the rights to be free and equal, whoever they are and wherever they are.

“Your courage is a lesson to all those who are blind to injustices and who forget that the battle against ignorance and hate is never won, but needs to be fought every hour of every day. Through your work, you have given black lesbian and transgender communities here and overseas a new visibility. Marginalization and discrimination take many forms, but one of the most pernicious is the denial that a problem exists. Your efforts to raise the subject of LGBTI rights challenge prejudice and complacency everywhere. You shine a light where there is shadow; your work creates a space where there was none,” he said explaining their desire to honour her thus.

He noted that she preferred to be recognized as a “visual activist” rather than an artist but argued that she was both. Born in 1972, she grew up in Umlazi, a township in Durban. In the early ’90s, as the apartheid system ended and South Africa transitioned to democracy, she moved to Johannesburg and earned a living as a hair stylist, then through her 20s took on human resources jobs.

“You found your vocation when you attended the Market Photo Workshop, founded by David Goldblatt. In 2004 you celebrated your first solo exhibition Visual Sexuality: Only Half the Picture held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.”

The ambassdador explained that even before her photographic journeys into black female sexualities and genders in Africa she was working as a human rights activist. “In 2002, you co-founded the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW), an organization dedicated to providing a safe space for black lesbians. You then spent more than three years researching and documenting hate crimes in order to bring the reality of ‘corrective rape’ assault, HIV and murders of black lesbians to public attention. In 2009 you founded Inkanyiso, a forum that deals with visual arts, activism, media and advocacy.”

Because of her activism, she has earned a global reputation and a long list of awards from institutions around the world. Muholi’s work is now included in major collections including those of MoMa in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and in many other art institutions in France, most recently in Arles.

Even more impressively, she continues to organize and run photography workshops for young women in various townships. “The gap between the provisions of the progressive constitution of South Africa and the failure to defend the LGBTI community from targeted violence is a constant and powerful theme,” he concluded.

With the formalities out of the way, Maholi was celebrated gloriously by praise singer Annalise Stuurman and drag artist Odidi Mfenyana and blessed by pastors Zungu and Royo concluding a memorable night of a young South African honoured.

If want to see Muholi’s latest work, The Market Photo Workshop is currently hosting Faces and Phases 11, a special project by Photo Workshop Alumnus Zanele Muholi that celebrates the 11th anniversary of her acclaimed portrait series documenting black lesbian and transgender individuals from South Africa and beyond.

She describes the project that started in 2006, as an awareness of “the lack of documentation of her community, and its absence from visual history”, driving her to embark on her series of black and white portraits. Since taking her first image of Busi Sigasa at Constitution Hill, she has captured more than 250 portraits, and is now producing follow-up images of her participants as they go through various phases in their lives.

Zanele Muholi image taken by Sipho Gongxela
Zanele Muholi with Faces and Phases 11.  Picture: Sipho Gongxela


Faces and Phases 11 can be viewed at the Market Photo Workshop, 138 Lilian Ngoyi St (old Bree St), Newtown, Johannesburg from Monday – Saturday: 9am – 5pm; Sunday: 10am – 4pm until February 28 2018.