Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

A Heritage of Violence: Paradoxes of Freedom and Memory in Recent South African Play-Texts

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

A Heritage of Violence: Paradoxes of Freedom and Memory in Recent South African Play-Texts

Article excerpt

At This Stage

In this ESSAY, I would like to touch on a few recent play-texts that enter into a debate about South Africa's troubled past, and that contribute to a discussion of current struggles to be free. In particular, I would like to centre this discussion on a publication called At This Stage - Plays from PostApartheid South Africa (edited by Greg Homann, 2009). This anthology includes four texts considered as being representative of new playwrighting in South Africa (Reach, Shwele Baxvo!, Some Mothers ' Sons, and Dream of the Dog). It should be mentioned that very few plays are published in South Africa. The majority of significant productions in the countryare devised, or choreographed, as physical theatre and contemporary performance pieces. South Africa does not have a very strong tradition of publishing play-texts. One of the reasons for this is that there is a relatively small play-reading public, and the pervasiveness of the idea that plays should be seen rather than read has been supported by an emphasis on drama as performance, rather than on drama as literature. Still, there remains a place for published plays that can be re-read and, better still, re-performed. Of the plays that have been published since 1994, however, I would hazard a guess that there are not that many that could weather a re-staging.

Many notable works have been published since apartheid, such as William Kentridge and Jane Taylor's Ubu and the Truth Commission (1998) and Brett Bailey's trilogy Plays of Miracle and Wonder (2003). These are wonderful keepsakes of particular productions, packaged memories of specific perfor- manees. But since, as Greg Homann points out in his insightful introduction to this new anthology, these are the works of auteurs, the play-texts are unlikely ever to be produced again by other theatre-makers.1 There arc other published plays, such as Zakes Mda's The Belts of Amersvoort (2002) and Greig Coetzee's Happy Natives (2003), which might be easier to re-stage; and yet these also bear the imprint of their writers' role in staging the original production. In many ways, South African theatre today is still largely a DIY industry - if one doesn't perform, direct, or in other ways get involved in producing one's own work, it's rare that somebody else will.

Nevertheless, what the four plays in this volume have in common is that they can stand on their own as works of literature, and they could all quite possibly be re-staged in the future by new directors and performers. In some way, then, these plays contribute to the preservation of heritage in South Africa. In their performance they become part of a living heritage, and in published format part of a tangible heritage that might be archived and preserved. Before I get to the plays themselves, I would like to take a brief excursion in the form of a tangent discussing some of the paradoxes inherent in ideals of heritage, freedom, and transformation in South Africa. I would like to consider some of the tensions between trying to remember and restore a past, and trying to be free to live in the present.

Freedom and Memory

Since the dark days of apartheid, South African theatre-makers have responded in many different ways to their new-found freedom. For example, a number of plays have been staged since 1994 that explore private experiences, such as autobiographical reflections on sexuality, abuse, drugs, and marginality, as opposed to communal concerns involving resistance to social injustice. This was one of the things that Temple Hauptfleisch and Andre Brink predicted might happen - that there would be a turn towards the expression of personal experience, rather than collective concerns; that authors might write more about themselves, instead of the group they represented under apartheid.2 As Miki Flockemann has said,

with the shift in the 1990s it seemed as if there would now be a greater emphasis on the individual voice, and voices exploring and articulating personal, subjective experiences, not speaking as representatives of a group. …

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