Feature Stories

Theatre Movement

Exploring South African identity through performance
  • Stage shot from Magnet Theatre's dress rehearsal performance at UMass Amherst.

“I grew up in this world knowing that theater was always a part of the South African social fabric. A place where people can speak truth to power, question their realities, and imagine new ways of being.”
-Megan Lewis

Home to eleven national languages, South Africa is a sociopolitical, linguistic, and artistic blend of shifting identities. Communication here comes in many forms, which is why UMass Amherst South African-American theatre and performance studies scholar Megan Lewis finds ultimate inspiration for her research in the country’s intricate cultural fabric.

Lewis’s scholarly work explores national identity, gender, and race in a variety of performance media. In her main research project, Lewis is examining the role of white Afrikaner masculinity in South African theater before, during, and after apartheid. In conjunction with a colleague from Rhodes University, Lewis is also editing a volume of scholarly essays about Cape Town-based Magnet Theatre, written by theatre experts from around the world. Magnet Theatre Company has been making theatre in South Africa for the past 25 years, using movement-based and physical theatre to create a new dimension of physical communication. Their goal is to generate artful works that use the language of the body to communicate beyond the written word.

“If we base our piece in a language, we are excluding someone,” said Faniswa Yisa, Magnet Theatre’s resident performer.

Magnet’s performance piece, Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking, which recently played to packed houses here on campus, uses the language of movement to communicate poignant messages about the meaning of home in a time of political and social change. Accessible to global audiences of all languages, this powerful piece about migration, xenophobia, and the power of the imagination has traveled beyond South Africa, to ten African countries, Europe, Japan, and the United States.

Having grown up in South Africa and having witnessed the country’s movement away from apartheid to a more integrated and democratic society, Lewis attributes much of her academic inspiration to her experiences, many of which are mirrored in the works of Magnet Theatre. Much of the Company’s work illustrates an emerging sense of identity—a multifaceted notion explored through artistic expression in post-apartheid South African theatre and performance.

“I grew up in this world knowing that theater was always a part of the South African social fabric. A place where people can speak truth to power, question their realities, and imagine new ways of being,” Lewis says.

Though Lewis has been in the United States for over thirty years, she returns home annually for the Grahamstown Arts Festival in Johannesburg, South Africa where she first saw Magnet’s Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking. The second largest theatre arts festival in the world, referred to as “ten days of amazing,” Grahamstown showcases a wide range of performing arts including theater, dance, music, film, improvisation, and street performances.

“When I first saw Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2007, I was so blown away that I canceled everything else I was supposed to review to see it a second time,” Lewis says.

In honor of UMass Theater’s 40th anniversary, Lewis and her colleagues recently hosted Magnet Theatre in a week long residency on campus. Five members of Magnet Theatre toured the Five-College community, gave lectures, and visited classes. They also performed their movement-based piece, Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking, as part of the Theatre Department’s Mainstage season in the newly renovated Rand Theater.

UMass Amherst and Five College students currently have the opportunity to enroll in a summer course with Lewis based at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. Students in the program will travel to Grahamstown to experience the “ten days of amazing,” meet with artists, and learn from South African theatre scholars and practitioners firsthand. Lewis says the course is modeled on the successful Edinburgh Fringe Festival program that UMass Amherst already offers to theater students, which takes them abroad to experience performances and engage in Scottish culture.

In Grahamstown, Lewis’s students will see cutting edge international performances; meet playwrights, actors, and artists; and have the opportunity to examine and reflect upon how South African history, politics, language, and social justice help create and inform the performing arts.

For Lewis, the politics of theater have long been a personal and scholarly fascination. She argues that all theater is political; it is an art form that directly communicates the issues that face a society.

Quoting Mark Slouka in a recent video by the Theatre Communications Group Lewis says “People look at theater as this frivolous thing, like it’s the garnish, or the parsley, rather than the main course. Theater is the main course.” For Lewis, theatre is the productive space in which people imagine, or rehearse, new ways of being, alternative realities, and richer selves.

Diana Alsabe '15