‘What Remains’, the new play from multiple award-winning writer Nadia Davids, is headed for Cape Town hot off its premiere at the main programme of the National Arts Festival. It will be performed from July 6 to 12 at Hiddingh Hall, Orange Street, Cape Town following its run in Grahamstown at Graeme College from June 29 to July 1.
Peter Tromp caught up with Nadia Davids upon the debut of her first new play on African soil in nine years.
You haven’t presented any work on our stages for a very long time. What have you been up to these last nine years?
I know. It’s almost a decade, but it doesn’t feel like that at all. This must be what getting older means – time seems to speed up.
In 2009 I took up fulltime post at Queen Mary University of London’s Drama Department and I worked and lived there for seven years, but because all my research work was focused on SA, I was able to come home fairly frequently. But it was quite an all-consuming, intensive job and there wasn’t really the space or time to devote five to six weeks of rehearsal to a new play, so I turned to different forms of writing that allowed me to write in snatched hours, at my own pace: I wrote a novel (‘An Imperfect Blessing’), did some academic writing and large research projects, worked on a few short stories and started learning screen-writing. Last year I wrote a play commissioned by a UK theatre company about refugee teenagers seeking asylum called ‘Night Light’ and that did a nine city UK tour. So, always writing, just working on different (things) and contexts.
Tell us about ‘What Remains’, what audiences can look forward to with the show and why you felt it was the right work to showcase after your long absence.
I started working on ‘What Remains’ at the end of 2014 and at the time I thought I was working on a novella; a text about Cape slavery, loosely based on the uncovering of the graveyard at Prestwich Place in Cape Town in 2003. (A tract of purchased land being developed by a corporate real estate developer.) During the first week of breaking ground the builders discovered what turned out to be one of the largest eighteenth century slave burial grounds ever to be unearthed in the Southern hemisphere. Nearly 3000 bodies were accounted for, from babies who were a few weeks old – the children of slave washerwomen – to men in their late 60s. There were massive debates after the uncovery, between community activists, archaeologists and the developers about what should be done with the site and the bones and that sparked something in me: that argument about how we manage the past, how we imagine an inclusive city. The more I read, the more incredibly moved I was by this story, the more I thought about other places in the world where that conflict between the past and the present occurred…when bones erupted to the surface and demanded to be seen, to be heard.
The novella was part of a bigger research project, but as I was writing I suddenly realised that it wasn’t meant to be a novel at all; it was meant for live performance. And so I sent the text to Jay Pather and asked if he would be interested in working on it, on directing it and to my absolute delight, he was. Jay is an extraordinary artist, has a brilliant mind and has a deep understanding of local and global political currents and it felt like exactly the right fit.
It’s been hugely interesting for me to see how he’s animated the work. He’s brought in multi-media, the most exquisite choreography and through this prompting I shifted the text slightly so that it also became about the 2015 student protests. Sometimes I drop in on rehearsals (making a nuisance of myself) and I’m so intrigued by how the cast is finding new meanings, emphasising others and what a beautiful, inter-generational cast it is: Denise Newman, Faniswa Yisa, Shaun Oelf, Buhle Ngaba…we are very lucky indeed.
You made a huge splash with ‘At Her Feet’ almost 15 years ago. How do you feel that play holds up, and has your preoccupations and obsessions changed at all since you debuted that work? (Any chance of seeing a restaging sometime in the future?)
‘At Her Feet’ has a very special place in my heart – Quanita’s (Adams) too. It gave us our start and was made and received with such love. One of the things that’s given me immense joy since I’ve been back is having young women-across a spectrum of faith and race – who are in high-school or at university – telling me what the play has meant to them; how it made them feel visible, how they gravitated towards it, what it showed them. I think that’s the best gauge of whether it holds up or not: if it still connects with a new generation of theatremakers and theatregoers, even readers. As to the focus of my work changing: sure, as an artist one has to shift and develop or you stagnate. You refine certain ideas as you get older, but the in broad strokes, I’m still interested in the same things: Cape Town, women, storytelling. Happily, I am able to say that yes, it will be restaged and very soon. We are doing a very short, special staging at Artscape in August to celebrate Women’s Day. It’s our 15 year anniversary and we wanted to mark it in some way. It’s the first time Quanita and I have been back in Cape Town at the same time in 12 years so it all clicked together at once.
* Tickets cost R120 and can be booked at www.webtickets.co.za.