Lilo, Sweet Chariot
By Carla Lever
Almost as predictable as the noonday gun is the fact that, wheresoever goeth actors, goeth drama. Each year’s Fleur du Cap theatre awards bring with it the usual mix of wounded egos and very pointed social commentary about the whiteness of the winners.
…which is exactly what happened last week, when I squeezed myself into the kind of dress that doesn’t allow for dinner at the same time as breathing. Here are a few thoughts on the night, made in the gaps between playing my own Tetris-style game of seeing how many complementary Lindt balls I could fit into a beaded evening purse.
The ceremony itself was interspersed with choreographic interludes comprising of three mud-covered dancers playing ‘servants of the theatre.’ First seen sweeping the stage, they interacted with workers’ utensils to weave a reverent dance, culminating in a solemn, kneeling offering of the awards to winners.
…or at least that’s what one presumes director Alfred Hinkel had in mind when he cast what turned out to be the only three people of colour to appear in the entire ceremony. Against the historical backdrop of bubbling racial tension, it must surely go down as one of the most spectacularly insular creative choices at the awards (otherwise known as “it’s all jolly good fun and games until somebody dresses in mud and genuflects to the white massa of ceremonies”).
Before I have Helen Zille on the phone arguing whether Cape Town is racist, let’s just agree on one thing: bar the popular coloured theatre scene represented by the Marc Lotterings and the Joe Barbers, the majority of commercial theatre is overwhelmingly white and elitist. But why shoot the messenger when cutting to the cause is so much meatier?
Playwrights are told to ‘write what you know’. Understandably, most drama students end up writing plays about conflicted white people dealing with bad break ups, most young drama grads tend to write about discontented white people dealing with bad jobs and most drama veterans tend to write about disillusioned white people engaging in post-Apartheid philosophising with black people (or, more usually, black person).
Because we have a wealth of talented creatives, a lot of these plays tend to be pretty darn good. In fact, quite a number of them so good that they heartily deserve – although don’t always receive – the peer recognition that awards ceremonies such as the Fleur du Caps afford (as well as the handy prize money, keeping them in such decadent, muse-inspiring substances as bread and electricity). The fact is, though, that if we want a diversity of stories, we must be critically aware of why we write what, and cast as, we do.
Black actors are overwhelming cast for one reason – the plot demands the actor be black. White actors are cast simply because they are people. In this way, blackness becomes a narrative and whiteness becomes an invisible status quo. The annual Maynardville Shakespeare – one of the few productions the general public actually go and see – has only seen four productions directed by a woman in its 56 year history (the last time in 2000)…and not one by a black person.
I don’t think many people would argue that changing this image of exclusivity and whiteness at both a performance and an audience level is deeply necessary. It can only be invigorating for an industry that is, quite frankly, about as perky as a stage four cancer patient after the Argus. Are there enough talented black actors, directors and writers? Absolutely. But unfortunately, a career in the arts mostly provides about as stable a platform as a punctured lilo in a Dusi rapid. …that’s where NAC arts funding comes in. Except that this year, three of the seven recipients were complete wildcards – companies with little or no demonstrated track record.
So what has our taxpayer money funded? An amateur Limpopo community arts organisation that prides itself on creating theatre which “attracts the tourists through original performances [which] contain a true flavour of Africa,” a (second) Limpopo-based company that have made only one play, billed as “an X-rated South African soap opera” and the fledgling production company of a young Botswanian actor, whose biggest web weigh-in is his Twitter account in which says he “cant stant ediots.”
It’d be wrong to simplistically assume good work couldn’t be done by any of these companies with the funding. But it’s a short-sighted plan indeed to inject grassroots organisations lacking the demonstrated commitment to, and capacity for, creative and managerial excellence with once-off payments of hundreds of thousands of Rands. Especially when there are a plethora of established companies dedicated to nurturing precisely the talent we all so desperately want to see who are left up the creek without a paddle. And with a rapidly deflating punctured lilo.
Follow Carla Lever on Twitter (@carlalever)
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