- Role-Play in South African Theatre
It's worth remembering that however much the discipline of drama and theater studies may borrow from the social sciences, the latter makes routine use of a range of terms, such as "role," "actor," "scenario," and so forth, drawn from the theater. Drama is one of the most potent ways we have of engaging imaginatively with the implications of our natures as social role players, of investigating in pleasurable ways what happens when roles change, or when we change and our roles don't, or when in one way or another tensions arise in our role relationships. When the place is South Africa under apartheid and the state is dedicated to setting social roles in concrete on the basis of skin color, denying the fundamentally creative human capacity to develop and transform the roles we play, the drama becomes paradoxically enriched by the massive anger, frustration, and desire thus generated.
Haike Frank's book, originally a doctoral thesis, is the most thorough, if not always the most illuminating, study of the subject of role-play in the theater of the apartheid years. Having reviewed some of the main sociological discussions of role and identity theory, she devotes two chapters to a number of Fugard's plays, both those of sole authorship such as Blood Knot, Statements after an Arrest, and A Lesson from Aloes, and those (Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island) created in collaboration with the actors Winston Ntshona and John Kani. These are followed by discussions of plays associated—in some cases rather problematically—with the Black Consciousness Movement (Survival, Bopha!, Egoli—City of Gold) and with the multiracial workshop productions that developed in opposition to the BCM drama in the late 1970s and '80s (Born in the RSA and Sophiatown). She completes her study with a chapter on three plays by women about the realities of women's lives under apartheid and during the transition to majority rule (You Strike the Woman, You Strike the Rock; Have You Seen Zandile?; and Curl Up and Dye), ending with a conclusion that largely reiterates what has already been said.
Though it was edited by Eckhard Breitinger for publication, the book's thesis origins are all too apparent. As all good doctoral candidates should, she has furnished an extensive theoretical background in the form of sociological role theory and her accounts of the plays leave no stone unturned in terms of commentary and references [End Page 144] to relevant criticism. While her main conclusions are justified and unexceptionable, there is sometimes a definite sense of overkill about the discussion of the individual plays, a good deal of which is blandly descriptive and not always sharply enough focused on issues of role. More disappointing, the theoretical material seems to make little impact on the perspective adopted in the dramatic criticism and makes a negligible contribution to a deeper understanding either of how dramatic theater in general deals with role and identity or to what we already know of the specific interactions of apartheid. Frank's favored sociologist, Hans-Peter Dreitzel, tells us that pathological aspects of society give rise to pathological behavior, which is hardly earth-shattering news. Still, this will be a useful book for students of South African theater under apartheid, even though one might have wished for something more sprightly and thought provoking in its treatment of both the topic and the plays.