Thursday, April 21, 2005

PV Shava

Amanda’s commentary on
P.V. Shava’s “
The People’s Cause: Political Theatre and the Political Ferment of the 1970s”

As an amplifier of the struggle for liberation, South African theater transported the challenges of oppression to the performance arena. In “The People’s Cause” P.V. Shava struggles with the effectiveness of this process and under what circumstances it took place in the prominent non-radical and radical theater of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Primarily concerned with representations of the past, present and future in the theatrical arena, Shava suggests that, “Blacks need to grapple with the problems of present-day industrial South Africa in light of how the past has contributed in shaping those problems” (Shava, 131). Shava’s argument is that political theater, particular radical theater, is an effective and necessarily tool of politicization that can be a mobilizing force for political engagement. While this argument concludes the article and is declared as the central focus, in reality Shava deals more with how political theater, both non-radical and radical, has confronted the issues of performing black identity.

The development of non-radical theater occurred during a period of “liberalism” (Shava, 128) in South Africa, in which performances could project the black experience without revolutionizing societal structures. Musical drama, or “township theatre”, was decidedly apolitical. The white creators of these musicals were seen as misrepresenting the apartheid struggle and black communities for entertainment value. Seeing these “escapist musicals” as essentializing the life of black South Africans, Shava argues that this narrow depiction is rooted in the inability of white creators and audiences to fully comprehend the black experience. Channeling “divided consciousness” (Dent, Schechner, and Moses, 175) the argument is that blacks performing for a white audience become consumed with translating their plight for the masses, forced to overlook more fundamental political and social concerns in the process.

While on the one hand non-radical plots centered on the urban majority and youth culture, the portrayal of blackness often took the form of indigenization. Traditional ways of life were depicted as predetermined and intended spaces for the black community set against the backdrop of the “thriving” urban centers. This warping of traditionalism with primitivism, cultural disintegration, and depictions of “smiling natives” harkened back to the paternalistic pulse of colonialism. The suggestion is not that representations of an indigenous past are inherently stereotypical; on the contrary, other radical plays such as uNosilimela used indigenous culture as a way to discuss the deteriorating effects of modernization. uNosilimela is forced to move from his tribal roots to Johannesburg, which is depicted “ - not as a centre for commercial benefit as musical plays imply, but as a breeding ground for the disorientation of black people” (Shava,130). The stability of indigenous society is contrasted with the chaos and turmoil that uNosilimela found in the urban center.

Radical, unlike non-radical theater, has proven its ability to educate about the past, confront traditionalism, and bolster pride in a black African identity without introducing primitivism as the basis for these topics. Owing much to the Black Consciousness Movement, it was between 1972 and 1975 that township theater became radical. Black Consciousness intentions of reaffirming black identity surfaced in radical theater as testimony to the capacity for both social reflection and activism (Woodard, 50). The content of much of the theater of this period dealt with everyday life in the townships or the plight of people fighting for survival, for individuality, and for freedom of expression and action. With the emergence of theater groups such as the Theatre Council of Natal (TECON) and Workshop ’71, radical theater not only considered social commentary as an essential tool of politicization, but also included advocacy and protest as central themes in their productions (Shava, 136).

Raising the question of artistic objectives, Shava must have been channeling Dent, Schechner and Moses (172) who asked: “How could we remain true to ourselves and our own concerns as artists and at the same time remain true to our developing recognition of what might be called a political responsibility?” While the radical theatrical approaches attempted to incorporate theories of black consciousness into everyday struggles, other playwrights withdrew from this practice. Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi Is Dead is about the constraints of pass laws and the significance of black identity. Finding the passbook of a dead man, Sizwe Bansi decides to adopt this dead man’s identity. The play chronicles the daily grappling with the hardships inherited by this new dispensation. Critics of Fugard’s work argue that “There remains an evasion of underlying and fundamental issues” in a play that remains “fundamentally individual and individualized” (Shava, 133). With this critique we must question whether the role of the individual can be considered without ignoring the collective, and vice versa? Perhaps the most glaring hole in Shava’s argument is contemplating how collectivity and individuality may be incorporated into political theater (such as The Dunlop Play’s ethnographic approach for example). In the case of Sizwe Bansi, Shava mildly concludes that Fugard is not considered a revolutionary playwright, and therefore not subject to the same principles of “revolutionary” theater (134).

The introductory argument that theater was an effective mobilizing force for political engagement concludes the article. Unfortunately, because Shava glares over the relationships in the production process, we are left to wonder how this process might have taken place. The obvious question remains: How can theater be a tool for artistic empowerment without subordinating political aspirations to capitalistic ones, and yet still have an audience? This is a definitively political need, and without it the radical changes that theater can affect in this period of transformation would be impossible. Seeking strength and clarity from a South African past, and giving space and support to imaginatively new talent can secure African theater in this place.