Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Cultural products are a mirror to the ebbs and flows of change

We can learn much from culture about ourselves and our world. My potted dabbling in movies, books and plays - as opposed to more extensive exposure and enjoyment of what is available -signals considerable gaps in my continuing education.

I have not seen many movies lately, although I managed to catch titles such as Queen and Last King of Scotland. The last major South African movie I viewed was Drum, which focused on life in Johannesburg in the 60s. The place featured in the movie (Sophiatown) is like a frontier town – the rough- and readiness, a definite vibrancy, the urban-rural connections, communities in formation and the co-existence of trust and danger. The apartheid state also contributed to the edginess, what with its raids on shebeens and a variety of controls on the movement of the black population. In the end, the bulldozers won the day as the regime sought to make a white spot out of a residential area it viewed as a black spot.

Being and Afro-phile, I went to the movies anticipating the Last King of Scotland to depress me out of my skull. I expected dead bodies piled high and indeed that was so, but Forrest Whittaker gave a performance that lifted the movie. The film also gave insight into the recruitment, selection and formation of (firstly) a dud leader and a dictator. On display was also the Hollywood technique - par for the course in movies about Africa - of having (for commercial reasons) a white person in a major lead role. In Last King of Scotland, a fictional white medical doctor interprets what happened.

Turning to the theatre front, a past blog entry has referred to the play Dream of the Dog directed by Malcolm Purkey which is still running at Market Theatre. Purkey once told me that he believed the challenge in theatre was to lay down the new paths (moving forward from the rich history of protest theatre). This play sits in the transitional space between the new directions and the old forms. The play also nicely symbolizes Mzansi’s current position, located as it is in the interregnum which involves grappling with past injustice (insufficient closure on the past) while making advances towards a new and fundamentally different future.

I also recently saw Ntsako Mkhabela’s student production Sis Dolly’s Place which played at one of the small theatres at Wits University. The play could have done with a stronger story line. On the other hand, this deficiency gave the play a strongly post-modern flavour and featured some exciting juxtapositions. Sid Dollys Place skillfully conveyed the edginess of Johannesburg: the vibrancy, the seduction (always drawing newcomers, it seems) and those ragged and jagged edges. The play had no discernable lead role, but featured various main characters on an almost equal footing. There’s the procrastinating writer who is dreaming instead of actually writing, there’s a tough cookie of a shebeen owner (Sis Dolly), there’s the depressed person with a large suitcase of letters searching vainly for her husband and there’s a narrator darting/flying around the room declaring undying love for Johannesburg. With a little reshaping and fine-tuning, this play could easily be taken beyond the student scene.

On the literature front: currently on my bedside table is Zachariah Rapola’s The Beginning of Dream. This text fuses instances of magic realism with references to a local world that is all too recognizable. We see the parochial viewpoints of people whose horizons are confined: the petty jealousies, fraught and competitive interactions between women and intergenerational/ interfamily pressures coming into play. But we also see strange things happen and witness the dead engage in dialogue while maneuvering and schlentering - and trying to steer the lives of the living. Happily, "Dream" avoids contrived and the trap of trying to be too clever: Rapola is at ease as he weaves these two worlds together. His is a potent voice.

I am also rereading Oswald Mtshali’s Sounds of a Cowhide Drum and the work of Wopko Jensma’ Sing for the Execution. I am reading them - apart from my enjoyment of their craft – because I am perturbed that these artists and others who were enormously influential in the early eighties (and the preceding decade) are completely unsung in the new South Africa.

Mtshali wrote powerfully about ordinary life, but often with an ironic twist in the tale. In one of his poems, the central character sees a person collapse after being assaulted, the blood flowing “from his nostrils” into the street. The observer averts his gaze and walks on and into a church. When the self-satisfied and now-blessed observer returns from church, a neighbour asks: “Have you heard? They killed your brother?”

Jensma, for his part, marries texts with images, and his striking black and white woodcuts set off explosions of awareness that invigorate consciousnness and perception.

Proving that there is little thematic connection between the books I read, I have also started on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Of course, Harry is no hero or genius; in fact, he is all too frequently helped out of trouble by Hagrid, Dumbledore, Hermione and many guardian spirits. But he is a good soul and takes an implacable stand against the use of magic to harm muggles (us ordinary folk who don’t use magic). It seems that not only is it okay for Westerners like JK Rowling and Shakespeare to write of ghostly happenings – they are often feted for it. But stories with similar supernatural happenings penned from an African perspective are not appreciated and are often viewed as reflecting backwardness. But - what the heck! - the Harry Potter books are making the kids read, and that is an eminently good thing!

I exhort you the reader to access relevant plays, books and films as one of way of learning more about other South Africans, and perhaps about yourself.

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