Back to amazing — Professor Megan Lewis takes a group across the ocean to experience South Africa's Grahamstown Festival
By Megan Lewis | Thursday, September 14, 2017
By Megan Lewis
Thursday, September 14, 2017
Ed. note: Professor Megan Lewis has been traveling to South Africa with a cohort of students from the department and beyond for some years now. She filed this report of the latest trip.
“Theater with real fire behind it” - Arts and Culture in South Africa 2017
This summer, another cohort of students travelled to South Africa with me as well as Professor Priscilla Page for the 4th iteration of Arts and Culture in South Africa: The Grahamstown Festival Course. Paul Adolphsen (MFA ’15) and Glenn Proud (MFA ’15) joined the trip again as part of the teaching team as well. Sixteen students – eleven Theater majors from UMass and five students from Suffolk University, Connecticut College, Smith College, Hampshire, and Lesley University – participated in the course.
“When Megan Lewis tells you that you are going to have an AMAZING time at the Grahamstown Arts and Culture Festival,” says Professor Page, “she is not exaggerating. We saw raw, edgy, provocative work in a range of settings. We moved from proscenium theaters to gallery spaces to a botanical garden to see modern dance, performance art, physical theater, music, and comedy. We attended art exhibits, shopped for clothing and jewelry in an open-air market and participated in many conversations about art and life late in the evenings and over our early morning breakfasts. I was in awe at the curiosity and the stamina of our students who took in performances seemingly around the clock.”
Arts and Culture in South Africa exposes students to South African culture, politics, and history through the lens of the performing arts and is guided by the African philosophy of ubuntu, the worldview that situates individuals within the larger circle of humanity with an “I am because you are” philosophy.
Sabrina, a transfer student at UMass, who is double majoring in Theater and Journalism and pursuing the Multicultural Theater Certificate, explained: “We practiced the spirit of ubuntu everywhere we went, no matter who we were with. We made sure we had each other’s backs, physically and emotionally.”
My aim with this class is to use theater as a lens into South Africa culture. By journeying outside of their comfort zones, far from home, she says, “students discovered resilience in themselves and built a supportive ensemble of learners.” Students learned about global politics, racism, history and memory, and art speaking truth to power. They engaged a different culture with their bodies, hearts, and minds.
And Julia, a Theater major from UMass, described how South Africa impacted her on multiple registers as “a journey of emotion and spirit.” She experienced “the privilege of [South Africans] opening their history to me, in spaces that have seen inhumane and torturous places, coupled with buildings of promise and redemption. Their land welcomed me by covering me in its dust, and blessing my ears with its language, my tongue with its amazing food.”
Inspired by “the uncensored, unapologetic theater that South Africa is producing,” UMass Theater major, Matt, reflected on what he learned by traveling abroad: “We are living in a world that seeks to create walls, barriers, and divisions.” But, he continued, “It is possible to live in a society that predicates itself on empathy rather than apathy and dissent. I got a glimpse of people from radically different backgrounds coming together on the grounds of love and compassion.”
Wacuka, a Smith Theater student from Kenya, remarked that “South Africa has amazing talent and the courage of the people that have been born there will continue to inspire generations to come, building on the courage of so many people that have fought for their land and their liberation.” Celena, a first year Theater and Political Science student from UMass, was deeply moved by our visit to the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, “a memorial site for the countless students who were killed fighting for their right to be seen as equal, fighting for their right to be seen as human beings.” Inspired by the resilience and courage of those young people in 1976, she said “There is no way that I’m going to watch wrongdoings and sit on the sidelines now that I have the words to articulate how I feel about protest and fighting for change.”
Senior Theater major, Zoe, explained how “The racial issues and tensions that exist in America are so similar to those in South Africa but the difference is that South Africans have addressed these issues and they are part of the wider conversation. Americans sweep them under the rug. We need the conversation about race and racial injustices in America to be reflected in our art to the extent that it is in South Africa.”
Rory, who joined the course from Suffolk University, said that what surprised him most about the trip was “how much it made me re-interpret my own station in the world, and my own black identity. Being in Africa gives one an entirely new perspective on Blackness…Black Africans were able to cling to their indigenous roots, and hold strong. They maintained their languages, their music, their families, and much of their histories, even with the oppressive forces that tried to strip these away…This trip was an affirmation of the Humanity of Africans, the humanity of black people everywhere, and the humanity of myself, as a black man.”
Julia, who joined us from Connecticut College, said, “Going to South Africa where I was a racial minority for the first time in my life was very refreshing and helpful in figuring out my place in the world as a white woman.”
Lucas, a transfer to UMass, reflected on various forms of communication in South Africa. “Being in South Africa and having limited access to communication with my world back home,” he said, “was a time of reset and refocus…Technology in our current society as a constant distraction from the present moment–this brings us out of connection with both our own bodies (in terms of our breath and physical awareness) and with other individuals.”
INSPIRING MODELS OF MAKING ART
Students also drew inspiration from the variety of different modes of theater-making showcased at the Grahamstown Festival. Celena explained that “South African theater-making has impacted me greatly as an artist. Reading about movement in the course, I expected to see lots of physical work, but I didn’t expect to see it in every piece and to see it done in some many beautiful and moving ways….” She also learned that “Making theater accessible in less conventional spaces is incredibly important. It helps us reach a greater audience, of young people and people that can’t afford a fancy show.”
Mariah, from UMass, connected the work she did in Professor Judyie Al-Bilali’s Devised Theater class with what she saw practiced in South Africa: “The power of movement and breath as they convey a message without verbal language and they do not run the risk of alienating certain audience members who cannot understand the language of the piece. Everyone speaks body language and South African theater differs from Western theater practices in that it prioritizes the body over speech.”
Graduate MFA in Dramaturgy, Claudia, discovered a new appreciation for movement-based work in the dance and performance art pieces we saw. “I found that it was the less-literal pieces that affected me the most,” she said, “the ones designed to evoke emotion more than tell a narrative.”
Describing the course as profoundly “eye-opening,” Andres, a UMass Theater major, was drawn to the “collective minimalism and resourcefulness in the vast majority of the shows that I got to watch.” Many students were inspired by Undermined, a three-man show featuring the formidable talents of Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, Luke Brown, and Stefan Erasmus, about miners who go deep into the earth risking their lives everyday. For Fynta, from Hampshire, “it was amazing how they had no props and yet, they were able to fill the space with their bodies and presence…switching from one character to another with simple devices, such as making a distinct noise or shift in the body. Dance added more excitement, and when they sang and stepped at the same time, I felt goosebumps, it was so strong.”
Jordan, a senior Theater major, found herself validated as an artist by South Africa’s definition of theater making: “Witnessing other performers identify themselves as not just “actors”, or “writers”, or “directors”, but theater-makers - this thrilled me…. it encouraged me to come back home and work even more to develop my own work and identity as a multifaceted artist, and to continue collaborating with my artist friends.”
This year, we saw a stellar line up of shows, two of which are described here. The first show of the festival was Nadia Davids’ What Remains, “a captivating fusion of text, dance and movement to tell a story about an unexpected uncovering of a slave burial ground in Cape Town, the archaeological dig that follows and a city haunted by the memory of slavery.” (artlink.co.za) The formidable Faniswa Yisa (last seen at UMass in 2013 in Magnet Theatre’s Every Year, Every Day, I Am Walking) played an archeologist who is haunted by the bones she uncovers (see photo below). A play about how the past haunts the present, What Remains kicked off “10 days of amazing” for our group at this year’s festival. (For more on this play see http://www.artlink.co.za/news_article.htm?contentID=42214)
Jacqueline, an Expressive Arts Therapy major from Lesley University, explained how “Using art as a means to heal proved to be a prominent theme throughout my time in South Africa.” She said that while the play “only consisted of 3 actors and one dancer, the message it sent about the interconnectedness of the world rang true. The archaeologist could not continue to dig in good conscience, knowing that [she] was disturbing the spirits and the citizens that lived around the site.”
Students also experienced a provocative multimedia performance installation on the grounds of the Botanical Garden curated by Mandla Mbothwe and featuring Thando Doni (both with connections to Magnet Theatre). Sabamnye noMendi reclaimed the forgotten history of the sinking of the SS Mendi, a cargo ship that sank in 1917, taking the lives of 600 African soldiers in the English Channel. A story of lost ancestors, a fierce and proud African survival spirit, and the fragmented nature of history and memory, Sabamnye noMendi was performed by an outdoor fishpond, in the corners of buildings, and within cramped and confining spaces to gives audiences a sense of being there, of witnessing history come to life.
Professor Page describes her experience of the piece:
“This piece is a spiritual exploration of the loss of life of hundreds of black African men who died en route to serve in WW I. The company of eight performers led us through the gardens to a pool, a cottage, a very small room, and then back outdoors. They broke down Western conventions of theater (narrative arc, fourth wall, unity of time, place) and I felt spiritually connected to this performance. I felt called upon to witness the hundred-year old pain and devastation that the deaths of these men wreaked.”
Page describes one of the most intimate moments in the piece, when an actress laments the loss of life by expressing milk from her breast and sharing this offering with select members of the audience. “In the moments leading up to this,” said Page, “I felt a personal transformation. It was not my job to intellectualize what was happening in this piece. It was not my job to make sense of the story. I was meant to be a witness to this process of sacrifice and healing. When the moment of the bodily offering ended and we were guided out of the room, I stopped near the door, knocked three times on the ground, said a quiet prayer, and then placed the cup on the floor. In that moment, I expressed gratitude for the gift of bearing witness to this story and I felt connected through spirit to everyone on that journey through the garden that night.”
As the audience made our way out of the garden at the end of the piece, Page “was reminded of a conversation with my art-mother and mentor Laurie Carlos. During a talk back a number of years ago an audience member challenged what he saw as the lack of structure to the piece. To him, there was no story. Laurie simply responded, “There is no container, no form, that can hold our stories. It doesn’t exist.” Her words echo in my mind as I recall Sabamnye noMendi. How can any artistic form hold the intense despair embedded in the story of the men of the S.S. Mendi? Rather, the performers moved us through many forms of ritual, storytelling, and performance, etching out a path to spiritual healing. I, for one, was transformed that night and continue to return to those intimate moments shared with friends, loved ones, students, and strangers.”
We close with the words of students, who reflect on the impact of Arts and Culture in South Africa:
“Leaving America for two weeks was something that I never knew I had drastically needed, “ said Sabrina, “I came back to the states a rejuvenated theater-maker, and I will forever remember my time in South Africa.”
“South Africa opened my eyes to comprehending diversity in a deeper way,” said Lucas, “be it racial, economic, ethnic, religious, class, sexuality, or gender diversity. Going to South Africa forced me to hold multiple truths and different narratives at the same time.”
Graduating Theater major, Ani, “still can’t get over what an amazing opportunity this was. I keep forgetting this was a class because it was such an experience. I learned more about American theater by watching South African theater. I feel so privileged to have had an option like this for a class. It’s definitely something I will remember for the rest of my life.”
Reflecting on the legacy of South African protest theater, Zoe said, “I think it gives the theater I saw a real fire behind it. I saw that fire and I want to light my own torch off of that fire and bring that level of vigor, insight, agony, and elation to my own work.”