Bridging the divide As Assembly prepares to stage its special South African season, Yasmin Sulaiman reflects on the political role played by theatre both under apartheid and today.
t’s been 40 years since Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act was first performed. The play centres on a love affair between a white woman and a black man which, under apartheid’s Immorality Act, was deemed illegal. But although it’s been 18 years since apartheid—the oppressive racial segregation laws imposed in South Africa from 1948 to 1994—came to an end, Kim Kerfoot, who directs a new production of Statements at this year’s Fringe, believes these attitudes still remain. “Although grounded very firmly in a particular socio-political context, it is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s,” he says. “It’s a sad fact that even though there is progressive legislation, and what is widely considered to be the best constitution in the world, interracial relationships, as well as homosexual relationships, are still not free from stigma and harassment in parts of South Africa.” Kerfoot’s production was lauded when it was performed at Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre earlier this year. At the Fringe, it’s part of the Assembly Festival’s South African season: a collection of plays, music and comedy celebrating the Rainbow Nation and its connections to Scotland. Among its theatre strand are classics, like Statements, that were instrumental tools in the cultural resistance to apartheid. Fugard was at the centre of this antiapartheid theatre movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, he and his group the Serpent Players created plays that depicted the injustices of the regime. Fugard’s collaborations with John Kani and Winston Ntshona in particular led to hits like The Island and Sizwe Bansi is Dead. As Fugard’s plays travelled the world, they showed other countries how bad things were in South Africa. “I think his contribution to raising awareness was huge,” Kerfoot explains. “The performances of his plays in the United States and England provided insights into the realities of apartheid for the public in those countries when access to news and information out of South Africa was limited. His ability to make personal the injustices of the regime revealed the true horrors of what was happening to those who saw his
Above Woza Albert
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work, both in South Africa and abroad. “Moreover, the meeting of people of different races and cultural backgrounds to work on his plays, which was forbidden under the Group Areas Act, was an important way of combating the cultural separation imposed by the government.” Fugard may have been among the first to challenge the tragedies of apartheid on stage, but others followed. In 1981, Percy
Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon wrote Woza Albert!, a comic two-hander about the second coming of Morena (Jesus Christ) that tackles oppression and the loss of freedom during apartheid. First performed at the Market Theatre—the first committed non-racial theatre in South Africa, co-founded by Simon in 1974—its revival at the same theatre earlier this year was greeted with ecstatic praise, sold out
Published on Jul 15, 2012