Outgoing National Arts Festival director Ismail Mahomed has a self-confessed obsession with significant dates in SA’s history, and regularly posts Facebook updates in this regard. Three years ago, he duly noted the anniversary of crusading journalist and anti-apartheid activist Ruth First’s assassination — and something twanged in the mind of actress and theatre educator Jackie Rens.
“I became absolutely captivated by her story,” relates Rens, on the eve of leaving her base at Oakfields College in Pretoria to rehearse the play Ruth First: 117 Days in Cape Town ahead of its world premiere at this year’s festival.
The play forms part of the solo theatre showcase at the festival in Grahamstown from June 30 to July 10, where there is a spotlight on women this year. On the main programme, almost 80% of the works either have women commanding centre stage or are written, directed or curated by women.
It’s no coincidence: in Mahomed’s final year at the festival’s artistic helm before assuming the reins as Market Theatre CEO, he thought it apt to mark another anniversary: the 60th year since the historic 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings.
Among the political and cultural heroines being profiled this year are Albertina Sisulu (in the production OoMaSisulu, directed by Warona Seane, starring Thembi Mtshali-Jones and adapted from the book by Elinor Sisulu), writer Bessie Head (in As Ever, Bessie, featuring Denise Newman) and Ruth First, who was killed by a parcel bomb while in exile in Mozambique in 1982.
Says Mtshali-Jones: “As a young woman, I was intrigued by [Sisulu’s] strength and spirit of perseverence amid such suffering, and this fuelled my own personal strength. As a storyteller, I think it’s important to highlight the stories of women who have been instruments of emancipation and to never forget their contribution.”
Rens explains: “I hadn’t realised that [First] was the first white woman to be held in solitary confinement under the 90-day detention act. She was also a fantastic journalist. Her book 117 Days documents her time in solitary, and I got hold of the book and read it — and knew immediately that it had to be a stage production.”
First, the wife of Joe Slovo, was among the dissidents targeted in a security police crackdown in 1963, which also saw the Liliesleaf farm arrests that led to the infamous Rivonia Trial. She was detained for 90 days and then released, only to be promptly rearrested when she walked out to make a call from a tickey box.
“She was a very strong woman, but after that she started to crumble,” says Rens. “The book tells of the mind games played by the security police, and how she was mentally and emotionally tortured.”
When she isn’t immersed in matters of musical theatre and dance at Oakfields, Rens exercises her acting chops: she bagged a 2015 Naledi Theatre Awards nomination for best actress in David Hare’s searing play The Vertical Hour. That acclaimed Pieter Toerien production was directed by Fred Abrahamse. So it was natural that Rens would approach him and creative collaborator Marcel Meyer to adapt First’s memoir into a play and help her fledgling idea take flight.
She asked First’s three daughters, Gillian, Shawn and Robyn, for permission, which they granted “graciously”, with one request: that a percentage of ticket sales would go to the children’s charity Two Sisters, run by struggle hero Patrick Chamusso.
“The story is so important to tell,” says Rens, before confessing: “I’ve never been this nervous for a production, as it’s an enormous responsibility to remain true to her spirit without resorting to cheap imitation. I’ve never played a real person before. All my characters have been fictitious.”
Apart from Ruth First: 117 Days, there are several other mouthwatering female-centric productions at the festival. This year’s featured artist is Lara Foot, the CEO and artistic director of the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town. Foot is one of the country’s foremost playwrights, with a singular artistic signature that is as distinctive as it is potent.
Her classic works Tshepang and Karoo Moose will be restaged in Grahamstown, along with the world premiere of her latest creation, The Inconvenience of Wings. With a dream cast of Andrew Buckland, Jennifer Steyn and Mncedisi Shabangu, it will transfer to the Baxter immediately after the festival for a month-long run.
The 2016 Standard Bank Young Artist for theatre, Jade Bowers, is stepping into expansive territory with the large-scale work Scorched, which marks her debut on the festival’s main programme after directing award-winning one-handers on the fringe.
Written by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad, Scorched is described as an “epic yet intimate family drama” and features Cherae Halley, Jaques de Silva and Ilse Klink among its powerhouse cast.
Bowers says the play wasn’t her first choice. She wanted to adapt Carol-Anne Davids’ book The Blacks of Cape Town, but realised she wouldn’t have enough time to do it justice.
“Then Ashraf [Johaardien, head of arts and culture at the University of Johannesburg] handed me this play and said: ‘I think you should do this.’ I read it in one sitting — it was the type of epic drama you can’t put down.” She says Scorched’s overarching theme of a search for identity and resolution in a post-conflict milieu “links very serendipitously” with the local situation.
“Though it’s set in the Middle Eastern sphere of reference, it’s very easy for South Africans to make connections.” She says the “damage war does to families and histories and legacies” resonates strongly in a country that has skirted dangerously close to civil war itself.
“These are the stories I like to get involved in,” Bowers continues, her passion amplified in her voice. “Just as #FeesMustFall was about the missing middle, this kind of theatre is about the missing stories. Whether it’s about the identity of a coloured or Indian or Lebanese person, or someone from outside SA — they are feeling displaced in a place they call home. What are these stories, and how can we tell them to make audiences think about what’s going on in our lives and our communities? I hope Scorched can create awareness, in some small way.”
She pauses, then lets out an explosive laugh. “I’m not gonna lie — it’s a big risk. It’s an epic piece of 2½ hours with no interval. But I’ve got a fantastic cast who will carry me through this. And it’s an opportunity to push myself and my scope of reference. If not now, when?”Scorched will be staged at Johannesburg’s UJ Theatre from July 26 to August 5 following its Grahamstown debut.
Another strong young female voice who is making her debut on the main programme is independent dancer-choreographer Nadine Joseph, whose work Looking/Seeing/Being/Disappearing explores the notion of the “disappearing woman”. “I’m specifically looking at the male gaze in the representation of women within the SA construct,” she says.
Like her 2015 production The Fear of Loss, which explored the losses felt by the victim, perpetrator and witness to sexual violence, in her latest work Joseph also draws on Pumla Dineo Gqola’s book Rape: A South African Nightmare.
The new work features three male dancers — Fana Tshabalala, Craig Morris and Thulani Chauke — as well as composer Daniel Nubian on stage with Joseph. It’s not about simplistically painting men as villains, Joseph points out, but how they see themselves in relation to female archetypes.
Looking/Seeing/Being/Disappearing promises to be intense, but carries an 18 age restriction and includes a post-performance discussion. Joseph says performances are on the cards at the UJ Theatre after its Grahamstown run.
• The Wits Theatre announced its 969 Festival programme this week, with some 20 productions fresh from Grahamstown stages heading up to Johannesburg from July 13 to 24. These include Mike van Graan’s new comedy Pay Back the Curry!, Peter Terry’s play Immortal, Rohina Malik’s Unveiled, Heart’s Hotel (with Toni Morkel, Liezl de Kock and Christelle van Graan) and Quintin Wils’s unconventional site-specific work bRENT: A Mobile Thriller. Two of Durbanite Clinton Marius’s plays will be staged — the Standard Bank Ovation Award-winning comedy B!*ch Stole My Doek (with Shona Johnson) and Sweetie Darling (with Bongani Mbatha).
• A highlight of both festivals will be Phyllis Klotz’s new play Chapter 2 Section 9, which takes its title from the constitutional clause guaranteeing the freedom of sexual orientation. It’s based on interviews with more than 40 lesbian women, their families and perpetrators of homophobic hate crimes.