Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Egelhof explores identity & history in powerful theatre piece

I know Kurt Egelhof as a Durban boy whom I first met way back in the eighties. In his play, For Generations, Egelhof interrogates his past to get a better understanding of himself and who he is in the world today.

This introspection and this interrogation of family and heritage is something many of us are too afraid to countenance, and are even less likely to do in a public forum. (Believe me, many Coloured Durbanites do not want to dig too deeply into their origins; they would rather bluff and pretend than confront or honour the realities of their past.) But Kurt opens his photo albums, the kist and the closet and unveils what lies behind his Durban upbringing for the audience.

Kurt (in the past referred to as Kurtie by a friend, Dawn Robertson) cut his teeth in theatre in the eighties, but in the last fifteen years has strayed from the stage to television production. His current play, For Generations, highlights what we miss when voices such as his go into management or high powered executive jobs.

In For Generations, first launched at the 2008 Grahamstown festival, Egelhof investigates the male lineage of his family – tracing the line from his grandfather through to his son. He speaks of hardship, of intermarriage, of male reticence (that is both stubborn and tragic), of racial injustice and of the "debt" owed and the restoration that needs to take place. His (German) grandfather was shortchanged, partly because he married a Xhosa woman and partly because the world would not honour the talents of a local jazz musician. His father, Basie, fell short because he worked long hours – to the extent that it destroyed his marriage. He was often denied advancement in his work, thanks to apartheid. In the end, he died prematurely in a workplace accident.

Kurt studied a drama degree, one of only a handful of black people in an otherwise all white class in 1980s. As he tells it in For Generations, on graduating he had to face the harsh reality that decent parts were hard to come by. As a 'coloured,' he was viewed as unsuitable for a Shakespeare role and for a part in, for example, a production such as Welcome Msomi's Umabatha. He also had to endure racial discrimination at social venues and at the hands of sections of Durban's population.

For Generations is about a man getting clarity about who he is by understanding his background – the turns and twists his forbears were forced to take in a land dominated and distorted by apartheid. In the play, Egelhof depicts what life was like for his grandfather and father; he takes a brutally honest look at his own experiences, and; he engages with his son's dreams. Through all of this he discovers what he must do. Salvation lies in acknowledging his Xhosa grandmother, in speaking out against the denial of dignity and in calling for truth and accountability regarding the past. He must break the silence, he mustn't acquiesce, he must push back – and in doing so, he must sometimes spoil or disturb the genteel and polite social engagement in present day suburbia.

This play deals with being Coloured in South Africa. This is done not ideologically nor in a didactic manner, but on the basis of relevant experiences skilfully drawn from lower middle class existence and from a particular set of stories about dignity that is both crushed and resurgent.

Egelhof's play is powerfully authentic. It grips you, draws you close and gets you to empathise with a set of ordinary but clearly defined characters (that include his forbears and himself). The play avoids sentimentality; instead, it shares with grit and honesty Egelhof's own moment of awakening. Indications are that Kurt's moment of realisation and insight came during the making of the play itself - in the researching and writing process. One can venture to say this moment of truth is – incredibly – recreated on the stage each time the play is staged. The techniques used in the play, the intimate approach and his direct way of engaging with the audience, makes the play akin to an open-hearted chat with Egelhof.

The play has not yet travelled to all of South Africa's main centres and has yet to make its debut in Johannesburg. It will be interesting to see what Johannesburg critics and audiences make of it, and whether it will get the attention and plaudits it deserves.


kurt said...

I am grateful Mr Meintjies for his acute observations of my play FOR GENERATIONS. I thank him for the honesty and understanding reflected in his analysis. I congratulate him for daring to be as open in his opinions as I have attempted to be with mine in the work.

I am also pleased to announce that this work will be travelling to Durban from 6 - 26 April 2009; Cape Town at the Theatre on the Bay from 28th April to the 13 May; Johannesburg to the Montecasino Theatre Studio from the 14 May to the 1 June.

I too wait in humble anticipation of the response this work will receive in the greater theatre community, and South Africa at large.
And if I never do anything else for the rest of my career but FOR GENERATIONS, I will consider my life not having been lived in vain.

Kurt Egelhof.

kurt said...

The Durban run will be an historic one since it will represent the first opportunity that my Egelhof tribe (en masse) will get to see the work - the story of "them" - performed live by one of their own.

This will take place at the CATALINA THEATRE in Durban from the dates above (6-26 April. A date with destiny indeed.

History awaits.....


tsemo said...

Hi Kurt
I was blessed to be able to see you show at the Masque. Although I grew up under and rebelling against Apartheid one does'nt realise until one is exposed to a show of this calibre the impact on individuals. The past years have told the stories of the masses and the anguish of the individual has been submerged in the tide. I had tears streaming down my face as I stood at the end. My late mother said it took 78 years for her to being proud of being South African in 1994. Your work to me is also a watershed moment - helping us face the scary ghosts that stalked our country in the guise of Apartheid. If we don't look them full in the face we will never be free of the dominance those years have on our country. I'm humbled by your show and your ability as an artist to convey the truth uncompromisingly. Not a bad life's work!!! But let's hope you are spurred on to do many more :)

tsemo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kurt said...

I am humbled and grateful that I chose Kurt Egelhof and "For Generations" to come to the Masque Theatre, Muizenberg after seeing it at the Grahamstown Festival. I saw approximately 40 shows and this is the one that truly worked for our theatre in every sense of the word.
Our audiences gave Kurt well-deserved standing ovations at every performance and the show was repeated in the same year because of this.

For me personally it was the show of the year for 2008 at the Masque.

We wish you, Kurt a wonderful tour and may you get the accolades you truly deserve.

With all love, gratitude and sincere admiration

Celia Musikanth
Marketing Manager
Masque Theatre