- Standard Bank National Arts Festival
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The Grahamstown Festival reflects the South African political and artistic climate as well as its theatre. This year, a greater prevalence of African-language productions drew more black spectators. Initiatives to arrange promotional tickets, to increase the number of performances given at the still meager number of township venues, and to offer festival accommodation in the township next year, may further improve accessibility and profit-sharing. While so many of South Africa’s citizens wait for housing, jobs, and education to materialize from the rhetoric of nation-building, the residents of Grahamstown’s townships have yet to gain full participation in the National Arts Festival.
One opportunity for participation came through Brett Bailey, who recruited performers for his company, Third World Bunfight, from the greater Grahamstown area. Third World Bunfight’s two performances, Heartstopping and Ipi Zombi, enjoyed success tempered by controversy. At once confronting festival authorities and Grahamstown’s English colonial history, Brett Bailey’s site-specific (or, rather, site-to-be-determined) work, Heartstopping, made for one of the most engaging pieces of the festival. Originally intended for the Old Grahamstown Quarry, Heartstopping was canceled by festival authorities because of safety concerns. The Quarry had been chosen to represent the cave in the Eastern Cape where the performers had traveled to find the “spirit” of the work. To avoid a second cancellation, Bailey kept his new site a secret. Audience members met Bailey at the Grahamstown train station, an apt location to begin what Bailey considers the journeying process of drama. After a brief introduction, Bailey asked the audience to keep silent as he led them over to a graveyard which held the remains of colonial settlers. Instead of communing with their own ancestors, the actors were instructed to try to make peace with colonial antecedents.
At the outset, the graveyard was empty except for five tall “cocoons” of newspaper and an overturned trash can. A figure slowly emerged from behind the can, raised a mallet, and began to strike a steady, even beat. The beat and the drummer’s grim facial expression remained constant throughout, accompanied by the regular low moan of kudu horns. Other figures gradually appeared from behind gravestones and out of the long grass. Tongues and hands painted red, and silver tin-foil hearts affixed to the chest augmented yellowish-white body paint used in Xhosa initiation ceremonies. During twenty-five minutes of slow movement, only a few seconds contained decisive action: figures broke out of the newspaper, opened and dropped umbrellas (used to ward away evil spirits), emitted short gusts of wordless high-pitched sounds, plucked hearts from their breasts and released them to the wind. Then one-by-one, the actors disappeared from whence they came. The effect was stunning.
Some complained Bailey was desecrating graves, while he claimed he was consecrating them. The naysayers won out and again Bailey was prohibited from performing at the locale of his choice. At the next performance, Bailey led his audience a quarter mile down the train tracks to an abandoned station platform, which he enhanced with a truck to create a second stage level. In this industrial, two-dimensional site, Bailey had instructed his actors to meditate on the frustration at being barred from expressing themselves. A third performance took place at the 1820 Settler’s Monument, a building which dominates the Grahamstown landscape and serves as festival headquarters. People line the staircases to see performance teasers which take place in this central open space every evening, but given Bailey’s sensitivity to space, the performance of Heartstopping at the Monument was more than just a publicity act.
Other productions along with Ipi Zombi addressed the prevalent belief in witchcraft. People’s Justice, and the Market Theatre Laboratory’s workshopped production, Salt, also explored the intricate web of belief and violence engendered by witchcraft. However, viewpoints of the...