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  • Power Plays in the Cradle of Humankind
  • Megan Lewis (bio)
The Thirty-Eighth Annual National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, South Africa, June 28–July 8, 2012.

In 1947, paleontologists discovered the 2.3-million year-old fossil Australopithecus africanus (nicknamed “Mrs. Ples”) in the Sterkfontein caves outside Johannesburg. In 1999, UNESCO named Sterkfontein a World Heritage Site and the surrounding area became known as the Cradle of Humankind. Several artistic creations at this year’s National Arts Festival stood out for their intelligent, creative, and engaging ways of reflecting on our human origins, our connection to Africa, and how far we have come (or not) since our earliest known ancestors left their footprints on the continent.

The festival began with a formidable provocation from theatre maverick Brett Bailey, whose challenging, groundbreaking work, including the recent Terminal/Blood Diamonds (2011) and Orfeus (2007), is continually at the forefront of South Africa’s political theatre scene. This year’s Exhibit A took audiences on a disturbing personal encounter with the history of human zoos and the display of black African “exotics” or “curiosities” for European consumption. Asking us to consider the flawed nature of “civilized” Western culture, the piece was staged in the rooms and hallways of the Gadra Matric School where nine tableaux vivant depicted and embodied scenes that looked back at the past while also looking back at each audience member. Reversing the traditional relationship of European spectators gazing upon African bodies, each audience member had to look the past directly in the eye.

After entering the front hallway through a gauntlet of taxidermied animals, we came face to face with a scene reminiscent of an antique ethnographic postcard titled “Origin of the Species.” An African couple stood naked within a frame of colonial memorabilia, including a caricatured blackface doll, nineteenth-century maps and travelogues, and more taxidermied animals. Wearing headbands made of measuring tape and tagged with numbered placards, as objects in a museum, the living performers locked their gazes on each audience member, watching them as much as they [End Page 55] were being watched. Bailey’s brilliant examination of the history of racism and the European empires built on the backs, and at the expense of, Africans, Exhibit A was a profoundly moving, ethically savvy critique that used the power of live bodies within static frames to underscore the necessity and difficulty of the act of witnessing another person’s humanity.

Theatrical dynamo Yael Farber brought out the humanity and political stakes of August Strindberg’s nineteenth-century story of an upper-class woman who flirts with danger as she and her servant engage in a sexually-charged power struggle on a midsummer night. Bringing Strindberg’s Miss Julie back into twenty-first century relevance, Farber, who is know for her astute and theatrically powerful adaptations of classic texts, titled her deft adaption Mies Julie: The Restitution of Body and Soil. John (the steamy Bongile Mantsai) and Julie (the languid Hilda Cronje) tore up the scenery in this raw, hard-hitting, and disquieting piece about inheritance and birthright set on a summer’s night on a Karoo farm. The piece explored the disproportionate stakes for John and his mother Christine (Thokozile Ntshinga), both servants beholden to Julie’s Afrikaner father and his disillusioned, bored daughter Julie, who provokes her servants for her own satisfaction. In framing this story with a particularly South African lens, Farber unearthed the wounds of the apartheid past: John dismisses Julie as a “sad, empty-handed Boer still trying to be powerful,” and Julie attacks back, calling him a “Kaffir!”

In Farber’s play, John, Christine, and Julie — each representative of a constituency of South Africa’s new democracy — all have ancestors buried on the farm and thus each have justifiable claims to the land. Yet for Farber, nothing is simple in a democracy after a regime like apartheid. Julie questions John desperately as the situation spirals out of her control, “Do you see a way out, an end, to this whole thing?” Mies Julie deserved, and earned, a standing ovation in Grahamstown (it also won Best of the Fringe at Edinburgh in August and received rave reviews in New York during its extended...


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