Monday, April 18, 2005

Alex Throws Down on Politics and Performance

Politics and Performance: Theatre, Poetry, and Song in Southern Africa. Liz Gunner.

Unique to South Africa, in a sense, is the fact that the art form described in this article to fight back against white-imposed apartheid is theatre, a practice absorbed by blacks from their experiences with white missionaries. The negation of the State’s imposition of a false South African history was the primary motivation in much of the revolutionary black theatre discussed in the article between 1973 and 1986.

As a result of apartheid policies and educational disparities, performance art was more accessible to the general population than other forms like writing. This was integral to the success of arts in social movements like South Africa. The point then is, education through drama.

The theatre and its performances were often indicative, depending on time and place, of the general atmosphere within the anti-apartheid movement. Sometimes it was easily an indicator of militant nationalism but it always espoused self-awareness and self-determination.

At various points black performance was synonymous with the Black Consciousness
Movement and other times not. Regardless, though, black initiative, self-definition, determination, liberation and sometimes trans-ethnic solidarity were all characteristic of activist theatre. It would not have been uncommon, for example, to see a performance where one of the central themes was that cultural contact and exchange across racial classifications is seen as a process which could facilitate the construction of a nonracial society.

At times, the state has even tried to usurp the theatre for political motives. It might put up a performance with a mixed cast. The most authentic of these attempts made use of black cultural themes and black initiative – the historical narratives, however, usually implied ahistorical concepts like homelands as the original way of life. Other times, the state has allowed radical performances in city-based theatres because it was deemed that attitudes of 'tolerance,' such as the notion that the expression of grievances often acts as a safety valve for pent-up feelings.

Under such policies, theatre tended to mellow until the formation of the United Democratic Front, the UDF in 1983 when black theatre again made its way, after a brief respite, to political rallies. As an activist art form, performance represented a challenge to the apartheid policies of the South African Government. The representation of history and themes of oppression and exploitation in South Africa have been important preoccupations of black performance.

Some of the most common events witnessed in theatre of the time were depictions of pass arrests, the humiliation experienced at the medical examinations, petty bureaucracy, police violence, prison conditions, examples of racial discrimination, struggles of migrant workers, conditions in the hostel compounds, and the breakdown of moral and cultural values in the townships. Although questions of class and economy are always latent if not explicitly stated in black theatre, they are rarely explored prominently.

One of the most important aspects of theatre during this period is the fact that playwrights committed to negating Eurocentric utterances on African history and to advancing the modern correlative struggles for psychological and social liberation. Some major plays are known to present links between current oppression and exploitation of Africans with the processes of colonial conquest. The article ends in concluding: Theatre is meant to reveal what is being repressed, to say what is being whispered and to demonstrate what will or must happen.