When bulldozers began chewing at the earth at a construction site in Greenpoint, Cape Town, in 2003, they accidently dug up the past: a multitude of bones, belonging to almost 3,000 people who had lain silent for centuries. The discovery of these undocumented graves of slaves, free blacks, washerwomen and other marginalised Cape Town ancestors immediately ignited heated debate: should the bones be disturbed? How should they be honoured? How could they have been forgotten?
The dramatic story of Prestwich Place in part inspired What Remains, the new play written and produced by Nadia Davids of At Her Feet (2002) and Cissie (2008) fame. What Remains debuts in Grahamstown before moving to Cape Town.
It is directed by Jay Pather, also responsible for its inventive choreography, employing multimedia and dance.
Davids returned to Cape Town in October 2016 having been based in London since 2009. Part of coming home was making this new piece of work, she says.
While researching Prestwich Place, she unearthed material that dealt with the ever-present conundrum: how the past seeps into the present. After the discovery of the skeletons, different interest groups either wanted immediate reinterment with appropriate burial rights, scientific examination — or just to keep building.
Academics such as the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Julian Jonker and Nick Shepherd asked fascinating questions such as, what does it mean for a bone to be both an artefact and an ancestor? Could it be both?
"It was the staging of a kind of argument between history and memory, and which one was important. And in some ways an argument between the living and the dead," Davids says.
"What could be a more South African drama than one of competing values and of different ways of seeing what something actually is? That three people can look at one bone and see it as something entirely different [is extraordinary]."
Davids was intrigued by "this idea of something erupting to the surface; by the discovery of these bones that … ask everybody to reckon with the past in a completely different way".
Prestwich Place is a big signifier in Cape Town, in a similar way to District Six, she says.
"It asks us to think what kind of city we’re envisioning, what it means to have certain stories and certain histories centralised or what it means to have them pushed out."
The play is recognisably set in Cape Town in that elements such as vocabulary give a sense of place, but it is not explicitly only about the city. It is also not a "realist" play.
"I wanted to create a text that was quite interconnected globally. We understandably talk quite obsessively about the past in SA, but these moments erupt all over the world," she says.
What it means to have "unfinished business" in a country is not confined to SA.
"We’re often taught to think of historical epochs as existing as distinct periods of time, but they don’t. They overlap, they’re entangled … slavery, colonialism, apartheid, all these things are interlocked." That interlocking takes place everywhere.
To achieve that wider reach, the characters are written as archetypes, namely The Healer, The Archaeologist, The Dancer and The Student.
It seems Cape Town has reclaimed Davids. She’s been reabsorbing the nuanced details and debates that give life in SA its particular flavour
The Student evolved from a draft figure named The Narrator; the #FeesMustFall protesters helped inspire her creation.
The Dancer is interesting. He succeeds when words are not enough. Davids and Pather felt that in SA certain histories are unspeakable, "so dark and sad and deeply tragic that text can fail". Using movement and dance to tell such histories was a subtler option. Before Grahamstown, the cast — which includes Faniswa Yisa, Denise Newman and Buhle Ngaba — rehearsed at UCT.
Davids has seen the production come alive. "Jay has done these extraordinary things with multimedia and exquisite choreography," she says.
At times, the choreography and direction have sparked new meaning in the text. There is a moment when The Healer, who lives in a world of memory and ghosts, confronts The Archaeologist at the site.
"The Healer starts to recite all the biographical information of these bones," says Davids, as The Dancer (Shaun Oelf) uses movement and performance and dance to describe each image. "[That moment] was dazzling to me. I’m a writer, I don’t work with dance at all. To see dance and text come together in a seamless way was very special," she says.
Pather says he "thrived on the endless possibilities for imagery and kinetic connections" in the "fast-paced and complex" text.
It seems Cape Town has reclaimed Davids. She’s been reabsorbing the nuanced details and debates that give life in SA its particular flavour — with an added interest in class, thanks to her UK sojourn.
Despite a stimulating drama lecturing job at Queen Mary University in London, she realised "all the work I wanted to make … was at home. The people I wanted to work with are here. For me the most important conversation has always been the conversations I have with other South Africans."
What Remains will add another layer to discussions about who owns memory, and who has the right to speak for the dead.
As Davids says, the past tends to find us, like it or not. Unspoken histories will out. The Healer says at one point: "I have been up all night talking the ghosts down from the wind — a person can go mad listening."
• What Remains runs from June 29 to July 1 at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and from July 6-12 at Hiddingh Hall in Cape Town.