Brett Bailey's 14th play explores the process of land restitution through mythical figures, and highlights problems such as xenophobia in a postcolonial setting. Picture: Andreas Simopolous
Brett Bailey's 14th play explores the process of land restitution through mythical figures, and highlights problems such as xenophobia in a postcolonial setting. Picture: Andreas Simopolous

In February, Brett Bailey became the fifth South African since 1991 to be awarded a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters) from the French ministry of culture.

His production company, Third World Bunfight, has had an extended connection with France since 2011 and has toured four works across multiple cities in the country. At the 2018 Marseilles festival, Bailey was asked to put together  a photographic publicity campaign.

The French cultural ministry has joined co-producers Woordfees and the National Arts Festival, where Bailey is the chair of the curatorial committee, in contributing to the staging of Bailey’s forthcoming play Samson, his 14th to date.

“Success is a key to getting the opportunities to make more work,”  said Bailey. “The real advantage is it enables me to get funding, gigs and have attention on my work. But I am not interested in attention on me.”

Bailey graduated in drama from the University of Cape Town in 1991 and began turning his passion for theatre into content by living and studying alongside the sangomas near Port St John’s in the Eastern Cape.

He traces his attraction to African spirituality to his grandmother, who was a spirit medium and exposed him as a little boy to “the non-rational”, as he calls it. Sangoma rituals and ceremonies become visual and visceral during the all-night drumming and trance dance vigils called intlombe when the sangoma, fueled by the celebration of the community, has an out-of-body experience and communicates with the spirit guides or ancestors.

Bailey’s experience of intlombe made an indelible impact on him and informed the texture and treatment for a trilogy of Xhosa history plays: Ipi Zombie, the story of the witches of Bhongweni, iMumboJumbo, the story of a chief’s dream to repatriate the skull of King Hintsa; and The Prophet, about the legend of Nonqawuse.

“Working with spirit possession and altered states of consciousness is very much part of my work,” Bailey said. “My influences come from ritual and ceremony where there is a flow between people who are active participants and people who are passive participants. Participation is essential. I am less interested in passive spectators and active artists. I prefer that everything is one space and there is no delineation between the two.”

Like a surgeon to a wound, Bailey’s works journey into themes of darkness such as race, xenophobia, colonialism and the post-colonial landscape.

From 2006 to 2011, he produced five opening shows for the Harare International Festival of the Arts in Zimbabwe. These interrogated the Mugabe regime, eventually attracting  the country’s intelligence officers.

His stand-alone opera Macbeth was set in the brutality and remorse of a Congolese war zone. In its third and final staging over several years, the score was adapted from Verdi’s Macbeth by Fabrizio Cassol and the No  Borders Orchestra. It toured internationally from 2014 to 2017.

The performance installation Exhibit B (2010-16) focused on the concept of human zoos and brought audiences “face to face and eye to eye” with a violent and aggressive colonial past. After opening to critical acclaim in Edinburgh and touring throughout Europe, the show was shut down in London amidst  intense controversy.

Bailey’s  recent performance-installation Sanctuary was made entirely in Europe and worked with refugees from the Jungle refugee camp in Calais, the Grand Synthe in Dunkirk and camps in Athens, Palerno and Hamburg. The piece examined the immigration crisis in the EU and was based on the Greek myth of the minotaur and the labyrinth.

His latest work, Samson, also uses the power of mythology to inform contemporary narratives.

Samson places the Old Testament story into a mythological dance-music-theatre piece with many different influences from medieval and Japanese art to gospel church services, African ritual practices, conventional Western Theatre and  US showbiz.

Samson is from a previously colonised territory and journeys to the imperial centre with hopes and dreams of reconciliation and new relationships. He is greeted with xenophobia, which causes an outburst of repressed rage and catastrophic, apocalyptic consequences.

Samson resonates with the demand for land restitution for the dispossessed people of SA. Samson is like an avatar for the repressed spirit of retribution or revenge. He is saying that so often the promises for reconciliation and restitution are made with a smile, but actually there is another hand coming in, and the pillage continues,” Bailey said.

Samson takes place at the Woordfees in Stellenbosch from March 8-10, and at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown from June 27-29.