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.