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Theatre and Society in South Africa: Reflections in a Fractured Mirror, and: Decolonizing the Stage: Theatrical Syncretism and Post-Colonial Drama (review)

From: Research in African Literatures
Volume 30, Number 4, Winter 1999
pp. 212-215 | 10.1353/ral.2005.0043

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Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 212-215

Theatre and Society in South Africa: Reflections in a Fractured Mirror, by Temple Hauptfleisch. Pretoria: J. L. van Schaik, 1997. x + 197 pages. ISBN: 0 627 02294 4.
Decolonizing the Stage: Theatrical Syncretism and Post-Colonial Drama, by Christopher B. Balme. Oxford: Clarendon, 1999. xv + 304 pages. ISBN: 0 19 818444 1.

Although Christopher Balme discusses postcolonial theater in what used to be called the British Commonwealth and Temple Hauptfleisch focuses exclusively on South Africa, both books use South African theater as an exemplum of theatrical syncretism and both analyze this syncretism semiotically, as the dynamic representation of signs. This theoretical framework distinguishes them from previous books on South African theater by Kavanagh and Orkin among others, and on English-language postcolonial theater by Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins as well as Chris Banfield and Brian Crow.

Theatre and Society in South Africa deals with hybrid theater forms and is itself a hybrid text, part textbook, part collection of essays. Apart from the first chapter, on theories and definitions, and the last, a brief sketch on the "new dispensation" (159), the book includes lightly revised essays that appeared from 1982 to 1993. The best are those that offer close readings of texts, whether well-known, such as Fugard's Boesman and Lena, or deserving attention, such as Paul Slabolepszy's Saturday Night at the Palace or Reza de Wet's Drif (Crossing). As a textbook, the book offers students a model for "theatre as a system of processes" (inside front cover) and generic categories that highlight the syncretic character of South African theater: "indigenous Western elite," for instance, covers Fugard's English, literary, but local drama, while "indigenous, hybrid" covers a wide range, from township musicals (spectacular show-pieces with often high production values but minimal plot) to Sophiatown (music theater accompanied by historical analysis) (49). As heuristic tools rather than definitions, these category-clusters highlight hybridity, but they are also more controversial than they appear: officially sponsored Voortrekker commemorations may have been "indigenous" and "communal" for loyal Afrikaners, but the historical record shows not only borrowing from European pageants (fascist and otherwise) but also the exclusion of dissident Afrikaners, such as unionists, deemed traitors to the volk, as well as non-Afrikaners.

Reinserting history into this system requires revising its categories of analysis. The historical chapter, "From the Savoy to Soweto," for instance, presupposes a shift from "European" to "African" forms (31), which ignores the considerable influence of forms that escape this binary, particularly African-American variety, from the Virginia Jubilee singers (in South Africa from 1895) to the recordings, sheet-music, and eye-witness accounts of African intellectuals abroad. These, more than English drama taught in schools, shaped the development of variety sketches, pageants, and theater pieces in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the township musical attributed to Gibson Kente (since the 1960s). This history not only demonstrates that a famous show like the "jazz opera" King Kong (1959) was less "the archetype of a new genre" (41) than an amplification of genres familiar to urban blacks but whose world-wide publicity depended on white funding as well as black talent. It also explodes the standard opposition between Europe and Africa by acknowledging the impact of African American performance forms and sociocultural aspirations on South African culture and thus reinscribing forms as the sites rather than the mere sign of cultural and historical conflict. The "mirror" may be "fractured," as Hauptfleisch's title suggests, but a comprehensive account of society and theater in South Africa needs systematic historical contextualization as well as readings of individual texts.

Although engaged in the analysis of "cultural heterogenous signs and codes" (1) and of formal modes of response that recur across different postcolonial cultures from Amerindian theater in Canada to Maori theater in New Zealand, township theater in South Africa to drama in Hindi and Kannada in India, and performance is a range of englishes from Nigeria to the Caribbean, Balme acknowledges that semiotics (and the investigation of transcultural structures of communication) has to deal with history (and the irreducible specifics of particular politics): "This whole study is predicated on two...

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