Performance Art in South Africa

South Africa.

Performance Art: Live Art for the 21st Century (excerpt)

‘In South Africa…performance has functioned in the growing art communities in and around Johannesburg, Cape town, and Durban as a lively and absorbing barometer of the rapidly shifting political landscape of a police state.’ (more here) by RoseLee Goldberg

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Revolution and conscience: South African theater, June 1976 to February 1990 (excerpt)

Deon Opperman

Why June 1976 to February 1990?

Ian Steadman, one of the leaders in contemporary South African theater research, writes that “the events of 16 June 1976, when black schoolchildren crystallized generations of black discontent by turning protest into active resistance, were symptomatic of radical developments in political and cultural relations and make that a watershed year in many ways.” [1] This uprising of children in South Africa’s black townships took place in a context of cultural resistance that had developed over the preceding decade and a half. Building on a theatrical practices of autonomy, accommodation, and opposition that had developed by the time of the Soweto rising, a theater of resistance and revolution flourished until February 1990. I would like to offer an overview of South African theater and its historical context before and after June 1976 which includes observations about changes in structure and style of performance, the organizations and theater practitioners themselves, and the changes in South African theater after February 1990.

A Question of terminology

First, what is South African theater? The question evokes the response: what is theater? This simple question is central to even a cursory examination of the performance traditions of South Africa.

To the person approaching the question from the Euro-centric paradigm, “theater” is understood within the context of the evolution of the stage from Greco-Roman amphitheaters to the proscenium arch of the present day. All performance traditions before the construction of the first performance space that was recognizably a “stage” are lumped together as a kind of pre-history of the theater, “primitive” by today’s standards, and are summarily dismissed as ” ‘pre-logical’, ‘pre-industrial’, or/and ‘pre-literate’ in one breath.” [2] Likewise, the cultures and attendant performance traditions of pre-colonial Africa, under the yoke of European imperialism—and suffering that “slur of primitivism and moral inferiority cast upon indigenous culture by whites” [3]—have, in their turn, been ignored, co-opted, suppressed, and in many instances, wiped out. At the very least, until recently they have not been considered a subject worthy of serious consideration.

But things have changed, and today it is the word “theater” that finds itself in the dock. In South Africa, as in most Western countries, the limitations implicit in the term “theater” have resulted in its increased disuse in favor of the broader and all-inclusive “performance”— performance studies, performance area (as opposed to stage); performance criticism, etc. After all, how does one measure the performance of Zulu izibongo praise poetry, or Xhosa iintsomi folk narratives [4], or Sotho tsomo folk narratives, and the multitude of African mimetic and imitative dance performances, with a yardstick cut according to the dictates of Aristotle’s Poetics? And yet, until the late ’70s, that is precisely what happened in South Africa.

A definition of theater, and by extension, South African theater, must therefore be broad enough to do justice to all the performance traditions of South Africa: “Any work created in or by or about South Africans or with reference to any individual shaped by a South African sensibility….” [5] And that is about as broad as one could hope to go. Of course, within the boundaries of this necessarily all-encompassing definition, there are a number of independent streams, fed, as it were, by the rain of this “South African sensibility.” But before I identify these streams, let me make it clear that, once again, I am fully aware of the dangers attendant upon such reduction and compartmentalisation, and that these streams are identified with the full realization that there is much mingling between them. Indeed, it would be more appropriate to adjust the metaphor to that of different currents in the same river. I refer, of course, to the notions “Black theater,” “Afrikaans theater,” and “English theater.”

These three main currents of South African theater are distinguished for the sake of argument and clarity. Furthermore, it is precisely because of the separatist ideology in which they evolved, that they stand side by side (in the period demarcated in this essay), as three quite distinct and separate performance histories and practices, shaped by particular social, economic, and political determinants. Coplan sums up this sensitive issue when he says that to deny the reality of ethnic consciousness and discourse or to reduce it entirely to an epiphenomenon of ideological, political and socio-economic forces and conflicts is to mistake its sources, contradict empirical evidence, and deny Africans the right to mobilize their cultural resources in ways that make the most sense to them. [6]

However, it is also true that the terms “Black theater,” “Afrikaans theater,” and “English theater” are problematic and demand further qualification…. (more here)

More Literature, information, resources for South African Performance Art:

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