On Language and Storytelling at the 2016 National Arts Festival

July 3, 2016

It’s Sunday morning at the National Arts Festival, and I feel intellectually and emotionally paralysed by the need to process the multitude of intense experiences of the last few days; so - armed with my coffee from Garvey - here’s an attempt at distilling some of the last few days onto the page.


One of my ‘jobs’ at the Festival this year has been to facilitate post-performance discussions with the audience after the opening performances of many of the Main programme productions – what an incredible privilege! It also means I get to have moments like these: 


‘OoMaSiSulu’ (which I keep hearing pronounced all sorts of strange ways, really?!) is – amongst other things – a beautiful and haunting love story. Yet another collaboration between double Lifetime Award Winner Thembi Mtshali-Jones and the inimitable Dr Sindiwe Magona, focussing on bringing the under-acknowledged stories of strong  women of Africa to the fore. Years ago, I had the privilege of spending many hours with Dr Magona, as her chauffeur (and, inadvertently, dinner partner) for a return trip between Franschhoek and Cape Town one double-Festival weekend, and my interactions with Ms Mtshali-Jones here, remind me once again of the value of a women’s wisdom shared with grace.


Sibikwa Arts Centre explores the stories of Shaka Zulu in ‘Ilembe’ – a  very well put together production with a powerhouse of creative names behind it (including international award-winning choreographer Oscar Buthelezi , and master musician Themba Mkhize). Forcing its audience to question the histories we are taught, this is the ‘decolonisation of the curriculum’ in action.


Featured Artist Lara Foot’s ‘Karoo Moose’ has been a highlight of the Festival for many, so far - mine included. It is staged here nearly a decade after it was first made, with the original cast – many of whom were recent graduates at the time, and have since gone on to earn significant professional recognition in their respective fields. Acclaimed even at its original iteration, time has only been generous to this production, and is testament to the timelessness of the story and its innovation and masterful execution. A real gem, that should have life in multiple forms, for many years to come.

What struck me on this first day, was the extensive use of the vernacular. I grew up with the sound of isiXhosa, and I realise being here that I really miss it. Also, why are more people not talking about the dynamic package that is Chuma Sopotela (‘OoMaSiSulu’ and ‘Karoo Moose’)? She received a Fleur du Cap Award for Best Actress for her role in Karoo Moose - at, I believe, the tender age of 23. Consistently at the forefront of championing the cause of the underrepresented; in accepting it, she was vocal about the lack of transformation on the country’s stages, and in particular, the limited use of indigenous languages. Given what I have seen so far, I have cause to believe that that shift is finally starting to take place in a real way.  Far to go still, but distance travelled, certainly.


Pieter-Dirk Uys is himself in ‘The Echo of a Noise’, and – as I find is often the case when actors allows themselves to be themselves – it’s where his true storytelling talent comes to the fore. Dressed in black, on a bare stage, he holds his audience captive, with wit and wisdom that reminds us that there is hope for our country, should we have the courage to uphold it.  


‘The Firebird’ was a magical mix of puppets and dance and Stravinsky and animated film that - while beautiful - was messily incohesive, and unfortunately fell short of what could have been an incredible collaboration.


Debbie Turner’s Cape Dance Company debuts on the Main this year after 20 years of producing some of the most consistently excellent productions on the Fringe. The precision and artistry in the company’s execution of the swirling ‘Thousand Shepherds’ and militaristic ‘Enemy Behind the Gates’ is testament to the discipline and teamwork that mastering an art requires, and is almost spiritual to experience. Of course the guest performance by CDC alumnus Mthuthuzeli November (now with Ballet Black) in a self-choreographed work is a cherry on the top of this treat! It’s no wonder that those under Turner’s tutelage are finding places on the world’s stages. (And as a side note, I also appreciated the dedication of these performances to the late Carolyn Holden – most appropriate given the Spanish influences evident in ‘Shepherds’, and who I always miss at this time of year).  


The (National Lotteries) Fringe of course is an important part of the pulse of this Festival, and the city buzzes with the hustle of artists seeking audiences, and a huge range of work from which patrons can curate any kind of Festival experience. While there is clear talent on these stages, the craft of storytelling is the real game-changer in any production, and I am finding that that is often missing. I don’t want to be told your story, I want to be invited to experience it. 


Outside of the theatres, Festival staples the Village Green and Long Table remain good places to eat and/or drink, and bump into old school friends or get the goss, and it’s always worth trying the local spots – despite sometimes erratic service, one can be really pleasantly surprised. And thankfully, great coffee can be found consistently!


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