UMass in South Africa — reflections on the summer past
Saturday, October 1, 2016
Saturday, October 1, 2016
UMass Theater is not establishing a satellite campus in South Africa, but it would be an understandable misconception after the summer we’ve had. Dramaturgy faculty member Megan Lewis took a crew of students to her home country this summer for the 2016 iteration of her Arts and Culture in South Africa course, traveling to various areas and focusing in on the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. This year’s course was shaped in reaction to the writings of Paul Adolphsen ‘15G, who spent the year as a Fullbright scholar in South Africa and met up with Lewis and her crew during the course of their stay. The group didn’t just go see art, either; they made it — current graduate student Jen Onopa and a group of actors and production team members traveled with the group not only to learn, but to present a work at the Festival this year.
We asked Lewis, Adolphsen and Onopa to share their thoughts about their experiences, and they happily complied. Please read on, and check out the slide show of photos sent over by Lewis and Onopa as well.
The art and politics of holding multiple truths: Arts and Culture in South Africa 2016
by Megan Lewis
I have the best job in the world.This summer, I took the third cohort of students on the Arts and Culture in South Africa study aboard course. I get to engage students in the power of South Africa theatre-making, and to the concept of ubuntu, and watch their minds open, their hearts swell, and their bodies register life in a different space. It’s teaching at its most beautiful and rewarding.
Along with co-pilot Glenn Proud (MFA ’15), I was joined this year by guest faculty Daniel Sack (UMass English) and Ginny Anderson (Connecticut College), as well as UMass alumnus Paul Adolphsen (MFA ’15, who co-piloted the course last year). The 23 student-cohort included 3 graduate MFAs, 19 UMass undergraduates (including 3 students participating in the course for a second time), and 1 student from Holyoke Community College. While the majority of students were Theater majors, there were also Afro-Am, Biology, Communications, Economics, History, Linguistics, and WGSS majors represented.
Ubuntu, Whiplash and Holding Multiple Truths
This year’s course focused on the concepts of ubuntu, whiplash, and holding multiple truths at once. Arts and Culture in South Africa, which exposes students to South African culture, politics, and history through the lens of the performing arts, is guided by the African philosophy of ubuntu. Students practiced engaging each other, and others, through an “I am because you are” worldview. Nick, a Theater major who was attending for the second time, describes ubuntu as “an understanding of the importance of transparency, listening, and the willingness to look someone you've hurt, towered over, hidden from, or never acknowledged in the eyes and talk to them.” He also says that South African history taught him that “reconciliation is the act that can build bridges between people in different power dynamics.”
Paul Adolphsen, who spent the last year in Cape Town on a Fulbright Fellowship, wrote a powerful poetic analysis of life in South Africa called Whiplash which I used to frame the course. In the piece, Adolphsen poses the questions: “what does it feel like to live here? What is it like to daily experience the gap between what was expected and what is? To feel the past push furiously into the present? To live in a haunted place?” His answers to these questions blend scholarly analysis with poetry, deep personal reflections with anecdotes from his time in South Africa. He finds a metaphor for South Africa in the idea of whiplash, “the embodied experience of the “jerk” or “jolt” that occurs when you are moving forward in a determined trajectory and are suddenly, sometimes violently, met with an opposing force.” He describes how South Africa has historically been arranged by borders that separate and distinguish people from one another. And he claims, “I have become increasingly convinced that the act of recognition might be one of the best tools for breaking down these borders. Seeing the other on their own terms. Listening. Embracing--even actively seeking out--discomfort…. Part of my responsibility is to embrace, even seek out, moments and spaces that make me uncomfortable. This discomfort is essential to the work of border-crossing.”
Using Paul’s Whiplash piece as a frame, throughout the 3 days in Johannesburg and 10 days at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, I emphasized the notion of thinking beyond simplistic binary ideas, such as black versus white, good versus bad, past versus present. These are easy but outdated ways in which we have structured our world and which have led to immense distrust, miscommunication, violence, and hatred by people in power over other groups throughout history. South Africa’s apartheid regime is a prime example of such ways of thinking as are the tensions around race and difference in the contemporary United States. Emily, a senior history major, explained how “As we studied South African racism in-depth, I couldn’t help but look at the events occurring at home…. I’ve never seen museums more honest about their place in history, and more eager to confront their past.”
I encouraged students to attempt to hold multiple truths at once, which requires a far more open and nuanced approach to the world. For to truly listen for, and to, the voice of the other requires an openness of spirit, an understanding of power dynamics and history, and the courage to encounter and appreciate difference rather than be threatened by it. Nick, a second timer, wrote, “Life doesn't afford us simple, easy paths, and if art reflects or imitates life, then there's no way in hell for artists to escape difficult questions and discussions.”
Students discovered many things about themselves, about the world, and about their home in America on this year’s program. Their journals reflect these discoveries in the own words.
History major Emily, exclaimed” “South Africa was not two amazing weeks – it was two weeks of amazing!”
Sarah, a sophomore, said: “It’s amazing how in spending so much time learning the narratives of other people, that you end up understanding your own narrative better.”
Students of color saw themselves represented on South African stages, and in the streets, in ways they do not in the USA. Faniel, a senior Theatre Major, wrote: “Being able to see so many people of color on a stage made me really happy. [In the US] there isn’t representation for someone that looks like me…However, seeing all the actors and performers on this trip [and] the stories that they were able to bring to life with their voices, expressions and bodies, was beyond anything I had ever witnessed in the States… It was refreshing to be able to talk about race and the struggles that a person of color can face in an environment that felt so safe…This was the first time in my entire life that I ever felt like I was part of the theater community. This experience is something that I would never trade for anything in the world.”
White students on the trip also reflected deeply on issues of race and privilege.
“To go there was the best decision I have ever made,” said Alison, a junior. “I faced so many challenges while I was there and I was pulled out of my comfort zone but it made me realize so much. I am extremely privileged, not just to have the things I do, but to have the skin color I do, to have been born in the place and time that I was.”
Garrett, a freshman, wrote: “I leave this trip with a greater sense of what I must do as a theatre maker in the United States. I must embrace all identities with respect and give my fellow theatre makers the agency to live their identities to the fullest. I must make theatre a more accessible entity, both in format and content. It is going to be a difficult process, but working towards total engagement with truthful identities that are available to all will be an ultimately fulfilling and vitalizing experience.”
Miguel, who was a member of the inaugural Arts & Culture in South Africa cohort in 2014 and returned again this year, wrote of his experience as a second timer: “I am so blessed to be able to go to South Africa at the beginning of my college career and near the end. The second trip has allowed me to realize how much I’ve changed while being in the same space.” He added that returning to South Africa he “realize[d] that I’m the most changed. I’m radicalized, nuanced, intelligent and specific. I understand my position much more clearly now.”
Kyle, a senior who spent the summer taking a semester worth of credit in South Africa so he can graduate early, was particularly struck by some words of wisdom offered by Magnet Theatre’s Artistic Director, Mark Fleishman. “He said ‘You’re not a theatremaker unless you’re making theatre…don’t let anything stop you from making work.’ Mark also quoted Barney Simon by saying, ‘The only dignity we have is in the work that we do.’”
Jasmine, a sophomore Theatre major studying Theatre for Youth reflected on her experience at the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto: “students were catalysts that changed the balance of power [in 1976 during the Soweto Uprising]. “It is the youth in every culture that has the opportunity to change it,” she reflected.
Jerry, a freshman, mused on the importance of the National Arts Festival: “[It] is a perfect spot for artists and humans to come together and wrestle with ideas of reclamation and identity especially in a country that is still in the process of radical economic, political, and social change…The NAF is critical in reflecting the spirit of art in South Africa and in reflecting the small acts of determination by artists to reconcile and recover from a traumatic history.”
As long as I am able to draw breath, and UMass supports offering the course, this is where I’ll be every summer! It’s an immense honor to bring students to my beloved country. And witnessing the profound impact on students makes my teacher-heart soar!
by Jen Onopa
To produce for a theater festival in a country I had never previously visited was a roller coaster of a learning curve which was both exhilarating and challenging.
Preparing for the festival began almost immediately after our first run of We Are Proud at UMass in December 2015. Faculty members Megan Lewis and Judyie Al-Bilali encouraged our production team to apply to the National Arts Festival Fringe.
We were all extremely excited and equally daunted by the prospect of taking the show to South Africa. Our Fringe application was due in January. Additionally, we faced a February deadline for committing to attend Megan's course, so as to travel under the aegis of UMass. The rapid turn-around from our whirlwind production to an international study-abroad commitment was probably the most difficult part of the entire process. Megan was instrumental in strategizing how to encourage the ten other students to take the leap, apply for the course, and commit to raising money and assembling resources to participate. She was unfaltering in her convictions that everything would work out! Her enthusiasm inspired me and helped rally our group toward embracing the work ahead of us.
With the help of staff members Willow Cohen and Anna-Maria Goossens, and also thanks to a wonderful short video made by cast member Kyle Hartmann, we established a Minutefund crowdfunding campaign to help raise funds for our airfare costs. Dean Julie Hayes, of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, generously offered scholarship funds to help offset our production costs. Meanwhile, simultaneously to all of our applications for the Festival, financial aid, and the International Programs Office, we were also producing a three-week remount of We Are Proud at UMass in February. We were grateful to have the remount opportunity, but by the end of the run of an emotionally taxing show, we were exhausted.
We didn’t reconvene as an entire cast again until four months later in South Africa. Our rehearsals happened during flight layovers in London, in the backs of buses as we traveled through Johannesburg, in hotel conference rooms, on sidewalks as we walked to various festival venues, and in the lobby of the university dorm where we stayed in Grahamstown. We didn’t get to see our performance space until our tech rehearsal, which was the day before our performance. By that point, we could have performed the show anywhere.
The quintessential marketing challenge for any fringe festival production is: how will we attract festival-goers to see our show out of thousands of offerings? We created entirely new promotional materials, ranging from posters that we plastered everywhere in Grahamstown to special festival t-shirts that we wore every single day (this is not an exaggeration). The charming and gregarious members of our cast chatted up people as we waited in line for other shows. We each created our own 30-second pitch and practiced how to best capture people’s interest. The play’s title raised a few eyebrows in Grahamstown, as we had anticipated it might. A few people very candidly approached us asking why, as Americans, we were performing a show about African history. Because we had practiced our “pitches,” we were able to quickly articulate that the play explicitly addressed issues of representation and identity politics, and mainly focused on racism in the U.S. To our great fortune, we garnered two positive reviews in The Cue, the daily festival newspaper, in which the reviewers astutely reported the nuances of the play’s messages. (See the review at http://cuemedia.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Full-Edition-9-for-WEB.pdf -- see page 10)
Transporting our production across cultural boundaries brought other unexpected challenges, surprises, and audience responses. We only brought a fraction of our props in our luggage and decided to buy the rest in-country. However, some items were simply not to be found in Grahamstown, such as the kind of rope we needed. We came up with an alternative solution (an extension cord) that actually worked more consistently with the metatheatrical conceit of the play. We also found that South African audience responses differed significantly from audience responses in the U.S. One of our audiences in particular found the play’s humor about the actors’ processes to be so outrageously funny, they nearly gave Sabine a standing ovation for her “dying cat” monologue. At another moment in the play where U.S. audiences typically were weeping over the tragedy being enacted (when “White Man” points a gun at “Black Man”), the South African audiences were verbalizing responses of recognition, acknowledging the pain of the moment in a more vocal fashion than we were accustomed to. While we were not able to conduct post-show talkbacks as we did at UMass, several audience members lingered briefly after each show to share appreciation with our cast members for the racial dynamics represented in the play and for our work.
I know I speak for the entire creative team on this production when I say we are deeply grateful and honored to have had the opportunity to travel and present We Are Proud at the National Arts Festival. The entire trip was truly memorable and we all learned valuable lessons about festival productions and transcultural theater-making. Personally, I was deeply proud of our team for their incredible commitment to this project and for their bravery and passion during each performance. We all grew tremendously as individuals and as an ensemble through this extraordinary experience.