- Performing Whitely in the Postcolony: Afrikaners in South African Theatrical and Public Life by Megan Lewis
Performing Whitely in the Postcolony: Afrikaners in South African Theatrical and Public Life. By Megan Lewis. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016; 272 pp.; illustrations. $55.00 paper, e-book available.
Megan Lewis's Performing Whitely in the Postcolony: Afrikaners in South African Theatrical and Public Life is an urgent and overdue analysis of 20th- and 21st-century performances that are strategically tethered to ideologies of whiteness. Lewis examines South African performance tactics and media, staged performances, playwrights, and performance artists in order to mark and make visible how Afrikaner whiteness protects itself. Methodologically, her intent is to examine performances created by white artists in ways that do not patriotically defy nor glibly demonize them (5). Lewis interrogates how South African performances have reified and critiqued shifting manifestations of whiteness from the nation's inception to the contemporary moment. [End Page 175]
Lewis frames her scholarship around the term "whitely," which serves to focus the reader's attention on her subject's "doing of actions" or the "performing of self" (10). She defines whiteness as a fictitious concept, but one that believes itself to be infallible. Whiteness demarcates boundaries and separates "those who benefit from its privilege and those who are excluded from it" (46–47). The starkest example of the performance of whiteness is found in the study's use of the word "laager," or circle of wagons. This represents the literal fortress early Dutch and French Huguenot settlers used to protect themselves from "wild animals, enemy forces, [and] black Africa" in order to establish insiders and outsiders (28). Metaphorically, it represents the invisible border of whiteness designed to keep out the unwanted, which is in fact vulnerable to being penetrated as both literal and ideological borders are both porous and not sealed. This "laager mentality" continues to shape Western media's narratives of Afrikaners and serves as a unifying concept for understanding the white subjects of this study (3).
Lewis follows a lineage of intersectional feminist scholars who have attempted to unsettle universal narratives and assumptions of objectivity by making their own voices heard. She identifies her own position as a white, naturalized US citizen with an English father, Afrikaner mother, and with Afrikaner roots concealed by her Anglicized name (4). She foregrounds this "insider-outsider" construction as a strategy to unmask and understand the book's subjects. For instance, in reaction to escalating crime, Bok van Blerk wrote the controversial war song "De La Rey" in 2006, a summoning of the 19th-century Boer war hero General Koos de la Rey. The song was seen by many as a call for "insider" Afrikaners to circle the wagons and perform their volk identity in order to find protection from the "outsider" black government (59). The Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, a monument that commemorates the Afrikaner nation, similarly presents the insider-outsider narrative with its construction comprising 64 wagons (43–44).
Broadly, the book examines how whiteness is constructed and protected, as well as how notions of traditional, binary, and the well-defined continue to be embraced, challenged, and interrogated through performance. Lewis tracks white anxiety from the white settlers who defined themselves in opposition to others, to contemporary artists working to queer and parody historical whiteness and the contemporary anxiety it produces. In chapter three, Lewis shows the ways in which the plays of Dean Opperman use "nostalgia, memory, and minority status" to garner sympathy for the Afrikaner position. In his work, Opperman investigates white anxiety, and asks his audiences to remember the world whiteness created, and to envision a future South Africa (68–69). In another case study, Lewis examines the work of Afrikaner cross-dressing satirist and performance artist Pieter-Dirk Uys, whose character Evita Bezuidenhout is strategically covered with diamonds—a jab at the mining industry that fueled the apartheid economy (103). Uys uses satire, alternative masculinity, and drag to trouble...