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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 298-300

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Book Review

Four Plays

Black South African Women:
An Anthology of Plays

Four Plays. Compiled and introduced by Zakes Mda. New York: African World Press, 1999; pp. xxvi + 158. $29.95 cloth, $12.95 paper.

Black South African Women: An Anthology of Plays. Edited by Kathy Perkins. London and New York: Routledge, 1999; pp. vi + 177. $80 cloth, $22.95 paper.

These two anthologies have two plays in common, but they otherwise represent divergent kinds of collections. The first includes only four plays from the 1980s and 1990s, but offers a succinct and illuminating introduction by South African playwright and scholar Zakes Mda to the range of theatre during this turbulent period in the country's history. The second brings together ten diverse texts from the same period under the thematic rubric of "black South African women" but provides less than satisfactory editorial input; a rather scant introduction and impressionistic prefaces to plays lack a clear overview of the field and a sense of the links and gaps between the sometimes quite different contributions of these plays and the changes in South African theatre and society since 1983, the date of the first play in both collections.

Mda's introduction to his anthology (published in South Africa in 1996) opens by framing the theatre of the late 1980s and early 1990s in terms of the nationwide debate about the relationship between art and politics, specifically about "culture as a weapon of struggle" (vi). In 1989, African National Congress veteran and later briefly member of the National Arts Coalition, Albie Sachs, made the controversial suggestion that agitprop, which had served to arouse South Africans against apartheid, had led to the narrowing of the range of permissible or "politically correct" forms and themes, and thus to the impoverishment of cultural expression overall. Artists and cultural workers responded to Sachs in roughly three ways: one group of cultural workers, including militant members of the ANC and other parties, simply reiterated the primacy of political clarity and collective solidarity; another, rather conservative and mostly white, group took Sachs' complaint to mean that the era of political writing had come to a deserved end, but a third, including writers Nadine Gordimer and Njabulo Ndebele as well as playwright Athol Fugard, agreed that the vivid depiction of South African life had been limited by the constraints of agitprop and defended the truth of storytelling, while nonetheless insisting, in Mda's citation of Fugard, that "there could be [no] such thing as an apolitical South African story" (ix). Mda's outline [End Page 298] of this debate and of other influences on South African theatre from traditional izibongo (praises) to syncretic musical theatre, which draws on African, American, and African-American as well as European sources, provides a valuable frame of reference for those new to South African theatre (and a useful nutshell for seasoned readers) against which to review protest theatre (a term which Mda applies primarily to Fugard's work), and landmark anti-apartheid plays such as Matsamela Manaka's Egoli (1981; about men in the Johannesburg gold mines) or Maishe Maponya's Umongikazi/ The Nurse (1983; about a black nurses' strike), the first play in this anthology and in Maponya's collection of his own plays, Doing Plays for a Change (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1995).

The introduction also helps readers evaluate the other three plays and the purpose of theatre after the end of official apartheid structures (but not of unofficial racist habits). Member of Society (1994) by Makwedini Mtsaka, is not well-known outside the Eastern Cape where it was performed, but acts as a reminder that theatre takes place outside the major urban areas of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. Mda describes the play as an "allegory that addresses pertinent issues in South Africa today: liberation, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation" by way of ubuntu (the African principle of humanity defined by people's connection to one another), but it is more modestly described as a debate between high school students...


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