Set during the time that much of the international community perceived as the “honeymoon period” for South Africa, a period between the mid 1990s and the early years of the new millennium, during which time the iconic Nelson Mandela served as South Africa’s first democratically elected president and then Thabo Mbeki served his first term as president. Most of the action of the play occurs on one afternoon and the last scene happens on a particular morning two weeks later. However, the author is suggesting that the play’s events could have occurred at any time during this “honeymoon period”. To House explores the complexities and changing paradigms of living in a multicultural sectional titles scheme amidst an emerging South African democracy whereby stability of home, job security, family values, intergenerational relations and interpersonal conflict are brought to the fore. Much of the world seemed convinced that South Africa was engaging in a “honeymoon phase” in the early days of liberation and that colour, creed and class were no longer divisive factors. To House exposes the underbelly of society’s discomfort with dealing with crosscultural relations as it implodes into our living space.
The accusation of a black teenager sparks disturbance on the south London streets. While tensions rise, a couple from very different backgrounds navigate the minefield that lies between them and their families.
Picking apart an intricate tangle of cultures, religions and generations, The Westbridge showcases an array of voices from modern London with humour, style and bite.
The Westbridge premiered at the Bussey Building in Peckham, London, on 3 November 2011 as part of the Royal Court’s Theatre Local project, before transferring to the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre.
Fusing traditional storytelling, Indian classical dance and physical theatre, What The Water Gave Me explores the roots of Java slave history in an attempt to manifest the author's own struggle toward identity.
'What the Water Gave Me is about my connection with the Mothercity, Cape Town and thus intimately connected with my relationship to the Sea. Cape Town is on a peninsula surrounded by Ocean, the Atlantic on one side and the Indian on the other. The Indian Ocean is particularly meaningful for me and not just because the non-white beach was there, but because it carried stories of where we came from. I grew up different within, in a Cape Malay (Muslim) community with a mother from outside (Johannesburg, Christian). Apart from being not white or black, I was different from the other Coloured kids and different from the other Malay kids. My family was reeling from the ‘forced removals’ fracturing of their traditional extended family structures for most of my childhood. The geography I inhabited was one of fissures, fractures, cracks like my grandmother’s body, scarred with the many keloids of open-heart surgery. My grandmother, Gawa Arend, held the stories of Cape Town for me. She told me Bawa Mera, Bawa Puti, which I later discovered was an old Javanese story Bawang Mera, Bawang Puti (Onion and Garlic). She told me that her people had come from the East, non-specific, mythic Java, Indian Ocean and Ships. I believe that theatre can actively be used for healing. With this work, I put those beliefs to the test using my experiences of ritual and what I found to be common – the creation of sacred space, the invocation of the directions/elements and the closure or release at the end. I also attempted to work directly with my ancestors (particularly my grandmother) and began practically exploring Southern African shamanic techniques during this time. Faced with the gruesome realities of sexual violence and abuse, especially against girlchildren and the constant awareness of violence in South Africa, this seemed the most potent means at my disposal. In Africa, these practises are not ‘New Age’, they are continuous, ‘Age’-less techniques for the restoring of psyche amongst other things. They are effective. The associations of water with healing, sexuality, fecundity, release and purification were called on to effect a process using the performer’s body as point of contact/interdimensional interface/channel. It aimed to connect outward to the audience and community and inward to cellular memory and ancestral line.' – Rehane Abrahams
In Africa theatre matters. African theatre is entertainment, but it can also be aesthetically, politically, socially and spiritually committed, and often it is all these things simultaneously. Moreover, much modern African theatre refuses to be compartmentalised into a particular form of presentation. Instead it draws on indigenous performance traditions including dance, music, storytelling and mime, and combines them with ideas of drama drawn from experiences of Western colonialism, to create theatre forms which are syncretic and inclusive in both form and content. At its best African theatre is a total experience of mind, body and soul which engages with, and feeds off, a highly responsive, involved and vocal audience.
Modern African theatre coincides with the post-colonial period which began in 1957 when Ghana became independent of British rule. Pre-colonial African theatre forms still require much research. They were usually dance, music and poetry-based and served a wide range of functions including the teaching of social roles and behaviour, explaining the history of ethnic groups, social criticism, celebration and the fulfilment of religious rituals. Colonialism brought varying degrees of suppression of indigenous performance forms. These were less onerous in areas such as West Africa which were considered unhealthy for Western settlers and were therefore governed under a system of indirect rule; and far more repressive in parts of southern and eastern Africa, where settler states were established and efforts were made to eradicate traditional performance modes, which were often seen as antipathetic to European Christian and cultural values, as well as potentially dangerous foci for the incitement of rebellion. In many cases European forms of drama were introduced by missionaries, initially to transmit biblical messages, and later, in mission schools, in an attempt to teach metropolitan languages and inculcate European cultural values. This theatre was seldom meant for mass consumption: instead it was a means of separating off African elites and Christian converts from the mass of traditional peoples.
During the colonial period Africans were usually only allowed to publish or perform drama under the patronage and censorship of their white rulers. Early plays often have biblical themes, reflecting missionary influence; they also tend to be more or less naturalistic, since this was the form favoured by the colonisers. Above all involvement in political debate was strictly censored in almost all cases under colonial rule, so these plays are largely anodyne and imitative.
All this began to change rapidly during the 1960s as many African nations claimed their independence. West Africa was the first region to come to literary prominence with many novelists and playwrights emerging on the international scene. There are a number of reasons for this regional prominence. Throughout the colonial experience local cultures in British West Africa remained vibrant. This gave a strong sense of identity and confidence to a number of writers, several of whom saw the literary reclamation of their history and culture as an urgent task. Also there were a number of élite schools and colleges established in the region, especially in Nigeria and Ghana and these nurtured many new writers who had access to and interest in both indigenous and Western cultural forms.
Then, there is the question of language. In British West Africa writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo and Wole Soyinka had all been well educated in English. They came from multi-lingual nations whose indigenous cultures had little or no written literary tradition – albeit very strong oral cultures. Their decision, and indeed that of many subsequent West African writers, has been to take English and remould it to express local rhythms and usages, but still to write in an international language. This choice to write in English has made a number of West African writers far more internationally recognised than their peers who, equally renowned within their own countries, have chosen to write in domestic languages.
As with many aspects of African cultures, while it is important to resist an easy homogenistic view, it does make sense to talk about regional trends. Prominent West African writers may have chosen to write in English, but in East and southern Africa different decisions were made. In southern Africa, in order to promote divide-and-rule policies, many literature bureaux set up by the British encouraged and in some cases forced blacks to write in local languages so that their impact would be marginalised. Moreover, literacy in English and/or Afrikaans was essential if one were to have any chance of participating in modern urban society. Consequently, now in those countries there are thriving literatures in both indigenous and metropolitan languages. More recently, many playwrights have chosen to write in hybrid languages which reflect people’s day-to-day experience and maximise accessibility. In Zimbabwe there are playwrights who claim to write in ‘Ndenglish’, a deliberate mixing of Ndebele and English, and in [some] southern African plays... we see a basic English script which utilises many indigenous language terms as well as a street language which draws on multiple tongues.
Finally, in East Africa there are trans-ethnic national languages such as Kiswahili which have been promoted as a regional alternative to the need to write in English; while in countries such as Ethiopia and Eritrea, which have ancient scripts of their own, writing has always been predominantly in local languages. Hence the relative paucity of East African theatre which has become known outside the region...
This assessment needs to be placed in context. Published theatre in Africa represents the tip of an iceberg of theatrical productions, the vast majority of which are never scripted and certainly never published. It is also necessary to remember the Francophone and Lusophone areas of the continent where patterns of theatrical writing have been influenced by the different agendas of French and Portuguese colonialism.
Returning to West Africa, in Wole Soyinka and Femi Osofisan we have... two of Nigeria’s most famous playwrights. These two have long had an interesting dialectical relationship, in which the younger Osofisan challenges Soyinka’s use of myth as a validation of Yoruba society. Instead Osofisan chooses to use mythology in a much more critical manner which demands that society constantly questions and re-examines the philosophical premises which underlie traditional stories and beliefs. In both cases, however, we cannot but be aware that we are encountering a society which is steeped in rich and expressive indigenous culture which reaches back – not uninterrupted, but still vibrant – into the past as it also looks to the future. . .
Female playwrights are still a relative rarity in Africa for a number of reasons. In many places it is considered disreputable for women to become involved in commercial performances and it is often difficult for women to combine domestic life with the demands of the theatre. These have been factors restricting women’s development as playwrights in many societies across the world. Perhaps one of the most potent forces holding back African women playwrights has been the relative lack of educational opportunities for women, particularly during the colonial era.
Ama Ata Aidoo is a triumphant example of a writer who overcame a plethora of social handicaps to produce plays. She is a leading light amongst the small band of African women playwrights which includes her compatriot Efua Sutherland, the Nigerians, Zulu Sofola and Tess Onwueme, Gcina Mhlope from South Africa and Penina Mlama and Amadina Lihamba from Tanzania. She is also recognisable West African in her world view. The pantheon on gods, spirits, the unborn and the ancestors who are constantly encountered in much West African writing give the cultural productions of this region a density, richness, and indeed difficulty for the uninitiated which is unparalleled in other parts of the continent.
When we move to southern Africa we see the results of a very different historical experience. Here for a hundred years – and for parts of South Africa for three hundred years – white settlers seized African land, forced Africans into ignominious wage slavery, derided and sought to repress African cultures and belief systems, and finally imposed the horrors of apartheid on the people. Protest against this process has never been absent but, as in many other parts of the colonised world, momentum grew after the second world war – which exposed many blacks to differing patterns of race relations – and increased as other parts of Africa gained their independence. In Zimbabwe and South Africa... protest theatre became a force in the 1970s. In Zimbabwe theatre was used by the guerrilla fighters as a tool for politicisation, while in South Africa plays were mounted predominantly in the black urban townships.
Working against a background of poverty and struggle, this theatre developed its own style of presentation which relies heavily on the plasticity of the performed. Sophisticated staging, costume and props were not available and actors often had to be prepared to decamp quickly if security forces moved in to stop performances. Therefore the primary tool is the actor himself who must create his whole world through mime, sound and a bare minimum of symbolic properties. Reflecting the urgency of the actors’ messages and the energy of urban life, many such plays are composed in epic mode, with short scenes building up a collage picture of society.
from Martin Banham, Jane Plastow, intro. and eds, Contemporary African Plays (London, 1999).