THERE are public figures in every society who are seen as voices of reason and of conscience, whose views are broadly respected and held up as moral benchmarks. Locally, their ranks include Thuli Madonsela and archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, whose voices are not easily silenced.
Several decades ago, when the freedom to be openly critical of government was not as protected as it is today, their ranks included the prominent writer Alan Paton.
But “white liberal” is currently a fashionably dirty term — almost as dirty as it was to the National Party under apartheid. In such a climate of derision, surely a play about the one-time leader of the doomed Liberal Party is a tough sell?
Well, perhaps — but a group of brave literature lovers, who prize the beauty of words over the expediency of political correctness, has done it anyway.
Coming mainly from KwaZulu Natal, whose natural beauty Paton loved so dearly, they have crafted A Voice I Cannot Silence, an original new SA play that recently won three Naledi Theatre Awards.
Written by Ralph Lawson and Greg Homann, it offers an intimate snapshot (but not a fawning eulogy) of Paton, one of SA’s pre-eminent novelists and poets, whose Cry, the Beloved Country remains a global classic nearly 70 years after it was published.
But burrowing into the mind of a literary icon is no doubt a daunting task. The solution? Cull from the person’s own writings to create a vivid, multifaceted collage.
Far from being a disjointed patchwork, A Voice I Cannot Silence — even the title is taken from Paton’s own words — sports a lyrical, poetic script that serves as a reminder of the man’s mastery of language at a time when his legacy is in danger of being mothballed.
Chiefly, it is a nuanced study of a man who could be so easily canonised as an author and anti-apartheid agitator on the one hand, or reviled as a misguided and patronising old-school “white liberal” on the other, holding forth about injustice from a position of coddled privilege. The play deftly juxtaposes his greatness with his flaws and thereby accentuates his humanity.
Recently, the play (which premiered at the 2015 National Arts Festival before playing at Pretoria’s State Theatre and the Hilton Arts Festival) won Naledi Theatre Awards for best actor (Ralph Lawson, playing Paton), the Brett Goldin Award for best newcomer (Menzi Mkhwane) and best new SA script (Lawson and Homann, who also directs).
It has just finished a run at Sandton’s Auto & General Theatre on the Square and this week heads to the Durban Playhouse from May 12-20 and the Fugard theatre in Cape Town from June 7-25.
Lawson — who is approaching 50 years in the industry — says he started mulling writing a piece on Paton about 10 years ago, examining not only his career as a writer but also the complexities of his personal relationships, his role as an agitator for human rights and his time as a schoolmaster in Soweto.
He explains: “I thought this could be meaningful, interesting and relevant — and also a chance to re-engage the public with the poetry of the man. People may know him for Cry, the Beloved Country, but his poetry was also superb.”
The source material for the play would be Paton’s own writings, as well as the biography written by his widow, Anne, in 1992, four years after his death. She was his secretary and he married her in 1969, two years after his wife, Dorrie, died.
Producer Sue Clarence and Lawson approached Homann to work on the project in 2013, and it was eventually presented on the main programme at the National Arts Festival in 2015. But the luxury of time — and the process of collaboration — seems to have added dimension, maturity and seasoning to the project.
Homann recalls: “We wanted to look not at how to create a celebration of the man, but to create a play. The entry point was when his first wife died and he employed this secretary, largely following the biography [Anne Paton] wrote.”
While Clarence was working on securing the rights, she made e-mail contact with Anne Paton, now living in England. Now in her 90s, Paton’s widow had famously fled back to the country of her birth in 1997, having been hijacked, mugged and terrorised in her own home in SA.
But she was eager for the play to go ahead, says Lawson. “She told Sue: ‘Yes, go for it.’ She was worried that Alan was going to be forgotten.”
While Paton’s work remains popular in the US — perhaps in part due to Darrell Roodt’s film of Cry, the Beloved Country that starred James Earl Jones — and the book and his poetry forms part of SA’s school syllabus, there is always a danger that classics will become regarded as musty relics that don’t speak to current realities.
But for 27-year-old Mkhwane — and, hopefully, many others of his generation — the play has opened his eyes. “It was such a great encounter to suddenly ‘meet’ the man, and learn about his politics and what he wrote.
“As a young black South African, I think it’s important that more young people should see this play as it will engage them in white narratives pre-1994,” says the actor, who is the son of esteemed theatremaker Bheki Mkhwane. Lawson adds: “And the young black audiences that have seen it have been gobsmacked.”
Co-writing the play was “at times a rigorous tussle”, admits Homann, with agreement on the content but debate over how it would be structured, “but the struggle has resulted in something neither of us would have achieved on our own”.
Adds Lawson: “At the end of the day, it really is Alan Paton’s words, almost verbatim — just cut and pasted and put together.”
The play opens with a crestfallen Paton mourning the death of his first wife. His no-nonsense secretary (played by Clare Mortimer) bears the brunt of his irascible nature as he struggles to keep up with his masses of correspondence.
Anne becomes another lens through which the audience sees Paton: cantankerous, disorganised, impish, passionate. Mortimer recalls: “Making a person real is such a responsibility, and without her book there wouldn’t have been much to go on. I was very much poking around in the dark. But there were photos of how she carried herself, the clothes she wore — she was incredibly practical and organised, to the point of being bossy. She restricted access to him in his later years.”
Interspersed with periods that highlight Paton’s creativity and opposition to apartheid, as well as his deep love of nature, are flashbacks that summon some of the boys he taught when he was principal of the Diepkloof Reformatory in Soweto.
He supposedly introduced admirable reforms there, but in the play he is haunted by memories of showing little empathy, compassion or forgiveness for the misdeeds of his wards. In one scene, he abruptly informs an orphan called Ha’penny that the fantasy family that he writes to religiously is just that — a fantasy.
“We were able to use his writings to suggest that there was a dark side and doubt,” says Lawson. “It offered a nice dramatic twist.”
Reflects Mkhwane, himself an aspiring writer and director: “I initially didn’t understand my significance in the play — I thought I was just an ad break. But I finally started realising my role reveals something significant about Alan Paton, and to me that was very profound.”
“The way it unfolds, it’s Alan Paton’s conscience,” adds Homann. “You get the sense of this beautiful land that he so wants to enjoy, but he becomes more and more aware of the young black men that he taught and their struggles.”
The team also unearthed a little-known incident where Paton appeared in court (and was subsequently discharged) for soliciting sex with a black woman.
Was it not a gamble, staging a play about a white liberal — even one who spoke out?
“Liberalism has become a dirty word,” admits Mortimer.
“But you have to consider things in the context they were back then.”
Adds Homann: “Reading his biography, it was apparent that he was very aware that he would be judged as one of the oppressors, even though so much of his life was about fighting and speaking out against the system.
“It was a big concern of mine: I was conscious that we weren’t making a monument to the man, but we needed to humanise him.”
Perhaps thanks to thoughtful plays such as this — coupled with the fact that his famous lament “cry, the beloved country” is still often invoked by those disillusioned with the current political circus — Paton’s widow will get her wish: that her husband will not be forgotten.