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Reviewed by:
  • South Africa’s 40th Anniversary National Arts Festival
  • Megan Lewis
South Africa’s 40th Anniversary National Arts Festival. Grahamstown, South Africa. 3–13 July 2014.

The passage of time is marked by anniversaries and measured on the bodies of human beings who perform their labors on the stages of history. This year in Grahamstown, South Africa, over 225,000 people flocked to experience the National Arts Festival’s fortieth anniversary. The festival’s celebration of four decades coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the country’s democracy. As the state celebrated a significant marker in its growth and maturation, the theatre at the festival simultaneously marked it own aging process. Some sensational highlights this year included a visit from War Horse’s Joey, who trotted across the Rhodes campus offering rides to children, whinnying and snorting with lifelike magic, and an accompanying inspirational Think!Fest talk about the power and potentials of animated objects by Handspring Puppet Company cofounders Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones. This year’s festival was most notable, however, for its restagings of works created since 1994, thereby solidifying theatrical history post-apartheid. And more significant was the festival’s remarkable inclusivity and the presence of vital black voices in a historically white artistic space.

Much of South African theatre history has been framed through, or against, apartheid, either temporally or thematically. This year—fitting of anniversaries, which demand a simultaneous look backwards and forwards—it was exciting to witness works that addressed the concerns of the present and future in addition to those about the past. The program featured several restagings of iconic pieces that were produced during the twenty years of democracy, thus solidifying a new post-1994 canon, if you will, of South African drama. These included Ismail Mohamed’s Cheaper Than Roses (1994), with Lizz Meiring; William Kentridge, Jane Taylor, and [End Page 104]

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The formidable Thembi Mtshali-Jones cradles her imaginary white charge in Woman in Waiting. (Photo: Michelle Cunliffe.)

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The ensemble in Protest. (Photo: Louisa Feiter.)

Handspring Puppet Company’s Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997); Thembi Mtshali-Jones and Yael Farber’s Woman in Waiting (1999); and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers’s Original Skin (2008). Woman in Waiting packed as much, if not more, emotional punch as it did when I reviewed it fourteen years ago (Theatre Journal 52, no. 2 [2000]). Mtshali-Jones is a formidable performer, and her autobiographical story of a life suspended by apartheid was all the more poignant on her now 64-year-old body; each time she mimed scrubbing her white madam’s laundry or carrying her white charges on her back, her beautiful, strong yet aging body told its own story of the toll apartheid took on the women who sacrificed raising their own babies in order to nanny white children. Mtshali-Jones performed the piece in Grahamstown as part of the Season of Solo Theatre, which also toured several of these works to the Athenaeum, an arts venue in neighboring Port Elizabeth aimed at integrating youth back into the Port Elizabeth inner city through arts programing. This year, the festival also presented forty-eight free performances (in a prison and hospitals in the area) and offered almost 6,000 tickets to community groups, a R350,000 ($35,000) value. Such efforts to broaden the audience of the festival are central to CEO Tony Lancasters’s vision for the future of the festival: “to take the Festival to people who can’t come to us.”

A sold-out highlight of the festival was the re-mounting of Ubu and the Truth Commission, staged in the Rhodes Theatre, exactly where I saw it premiered in 1997 (Theatre Journal 50, no. 1 [1998]). The original cast (Dawid Minaar and Busi Zokufa as Pa and Ma Ubu), hauntingly human-like witness puppets, and Kentridge’s multimedia projections (of body parts flushing down drains or bodies being tortured by agents of the apartheid state) were as theatrically engaging and politically biting as they were seventeen years ago. Watching Ubu and Woman in Waiting again after so many years...


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pp. 104-109
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