Out of Africa. For now.

   Time to Go. In Johannesburg, the countdown to going home began about Wednesday—there is always a countdown to home. No matter how much you love where you are…and how eager to get back on the road you will be once you actually get home. But for now…you wash the last soapy sink of undies, make a last trip to the cash machine for rands or euros or pounds or pesos and have a last lunch of something you cannot get back home—like biltong salad or mopane worms. You might actually start missing work and your workmates and you try to remember what’s next in your Netflix queue.

 The Countdown Diary

March 10th   It is only Wednesday and I don’t leave until Sunday evening. However I left home on February 11th so it now one month away. Mentally I’m starting home.

March 11th   Now it is Thursday afternoon and my colleagues and I have just had our last lunch together at the Coffee Bean…biltong salad and pumpkin/cashew/goat cheese risotto. I know it’s time to go home when I’d rather have a bowl of Cheerios.  Boyzie’s performance coming up. 

March 12th   Friday am. Sleeping way too well. Need a little stress back in my life.  Boyzie’s piece last night. I love it…a distinctive, impossible to forget work of political dance-theater. Some meetings today and a last “talk” with Adrienne Sichel. We still have four performances to go…Actually more because one’s a triple bill but the main one’s I came for are over. There is still the surprise possibility of course.

 Dear Diary. Can I go home now? It’s Friday night and I just saw a performance that is not at all to my taste nor was the sausage and potato chips and beer for dinner. However I had an interesting chat with Laurent Clavel, the Director of the French Institute here, a passionate advocate for South African Dance and an equally excellent example of France’s ongoing support for contemporary dance. While it hasn’t been as vigorous under Sarkozy it still makes the US look bad bad bad in the arena of art support.

 March 13th   Saturday Morning and a bad thing happened. Jodee and I met Adrienne Sichel in a coffeehouse bookstore and now I have more books. I need a 10-step program that deals with addictive book-purchasing behavior especially when you’re about to travel home with an already full-suitcase. But I am so enamored of Southern African literature of all sorts that I cannot stop myself. Obviously anything can be ordered on-line but you can’t easily know about this work unless you browse in an actual bookstore.

Yesterday, someone shared a FB post about how Starbucks is allowing those brave gun-toting Americans in for a power shot of something while carrying/packing heat/feeling manly. What’s Flying Stars position on pistol-packing coffee drinkers? Or is it time to switch to tea? The American gun culture—what a shameful national attribute. An African refugee told me years ago that her Minneapolis neighborhood scared her so much because of the constant sound of gunshots at night. At home, she said, “Only the police and the bad guys have guns.” Think about that comment. In the US I’ll wager most of the deaths by gun are committed by angry insecure psychotic-or-otherwise ordinary citizens who have every right by our standards to own a firearm. Stop.

Saturday Night: One last South African rain for me last night. Now home to the desert and spring dust blows. Engaged with a performing group from Reunion Island last night. Piece based on idea of dancers selling dance like prostitutes sell sex. Usually this company actually does the “performance” in the streets but festival organizers felt like that might be dangerous so they were given a way too comfortable lounge in the rather genteel atmosphere of upstairs at the Market Theater. Only ten “clients” participate per hour. A bit too low-key perhaps for anyone to relate dancers to prostitutes and the typical contemporary dance environment to a stripper/den/bar/house of ill-repute!

Stimulating talk with Boyzie, catching up on his projects. Influx Controls: I Wanna be, wanna be is now slated for several European festivals and the second piece in the trilogy: On the 12th night of never, I will not be held black will premier in Paris in early May. Then that will tour as well, in some cases with Part 1 and in other cases on its own. The 12th night includes Boyzie and his nephew with the addition of singer he has talked about previously. Wish there was a way to tour both together. I mentioned it and of course it is probably logistically possible but financially is surely another question. I need a quick trip to Paris to see the new piece. Oh stop it Marjorie…you need to stay home and write grants so you have money to pay the artists you love so much.

Sunday: The end of a trip. Dirty clothes packed, too many books packed, I congratulate myself on only having lost a camera case and one pair of black socks in 34 days of travel. I have a last cup of my on-the-road Nescafe and check in with my loyal laptop for any last messages—will be out of touch now for almost two days. Well there is my cell but at $2.29 a minute I do not chat lightly. I did not take my laptop to Gaborone, two nights and a day—which is what drove me to my nearly-hour of American Idol—NEVER leave home without your laptop or this could happen to you too. I will miss this cozy, convenient, quiet, quirky little Tama Rumah room in Melville, Jo’burg, SA. Anyone going to Johannesburg. Stay here.

Goodbye to Ann, a new friend, an energetic, kind and brave woman, younger than me but not so so much, who left South Africa to try Japan, teaching English for a year, and came home to start life over after years as a businesswoman, now the guesthouse manager, and William, her young assistant from Malawi, one of the world’s absolutely poorest countries, who sends money home to maintain younger siblings after the death of their mother and to support a wife and small child. He has land back home but no way to make a living on a small holding without farming equipment or money to buy fertilizers, etc. He is smart and exceedingly sweet young man who exclaims on how lucky people are to have been born in South Africa where the schools have chairs and blackboards and chalk and even some books!

joburg-four-way-home-086A last afternoon of well-presented performances at the Dance Factory and my colleague, Jodee, and I are on our way to the Oliver Tambo (anti-apartheid leader along with Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela) Airport. Through passport control, I check my bags (because of books there are now two) and still have to carry an extra bag of book with me or I’ll be over weight limit. South Africa may have some of the world’s best book stores—not overrun with the latest trashy best-sellers from the likes of nasty-mouth blonde Republicans or celebrities-of-the-month. The ones where I fell under the book-browsers spell are full of all things southern African/African from biographies of people who’ve actually done something to poetry to literary fiction to—my favorites—the smart and surly and disenchanted but nevertheless somewhat sensitive police detectives fighting crime in neighborhoods with which I’m now familiar. Books are piled up everywhere and it just feels…well…bookish. Hey, I love all bookstores but some do seem more about reading than others.

So many books, such small suitcases

The flights—airtime around ten hours to Frankfort—maybe nine to DC—three to Albuquerque. Don’t eat, take a pill, doze…it’s cold in Albuquerque, my son picks me up with latest family news and I’m soon home. The urge to travel will now lie dormant for up to two months…

 Southern African Dance and Theatre

I am so lucky. A big chunk of South Africa time. I do love this country. My every-country-in-the-world-before-I-die strategy has to incorporate some extended time in special places—such as South Africa. I hope to do the same in Brazil and maybe in Russia, maybe in Australia. Vast spaces, multi-racial/cultural in very different ways—troubled, rich, big bad histories, personalities, sources of wealth. Oh for god sake Marjorie, stop planning the next trip before you’ve even stopped for milk on the way home from the airport and washed this trip’s laundry.

On this lovely southern African sojourn the first order of business was to conduct research about contemporary dance and theater artists in this part of the world. For me personally it is all about my belief that Americans need to know more about the world and one way to do that is to experience the work the worlds’ artists are creating. And to have a better sense of place. I have written previously about most of the following artists/places but to summarize:

  • Cape Town

  1.   Infecting the City: a strange but oddly appropriate festival for this lovely ‘city by the bay’—European artists invited to make pieces of consequence about the city and its history. Working with local artists of course but certainly, intended or not, offering an outsider’s look at place and people. All work was site-specific.
  2. Ingewaba lendoda lise cankwe ndlela (the grave of the man is next to the road), a production of Magnet Theater, traditional story-telling in isiXhosa language combined with physical theatre, music, dance, and video footage of the N2, along which young South Africans travel back and forth between their work in Cape Town and their homes and families in the Eastern Cape. Directed by Mandla Mbothwe.
  • Windhoek, Namibia

Haymich Oliver, Windhoek, Namibia

  1. First Rain Dance Theater, Haymich Oliver, Director. Interesting find in what seemed like the barren dance-land of Namibia. A group of active contemporary dancers with substantial training in both South Africa and Europe. They have danced together for some time, now have formed a company to take their work a professional and creative next step.
  • Johannesburg/Dance Umbrella. I will describe/list here only the work that I think  Africa Consortium members might want to know more about.
  1. Vincent Mantsoe’s SAN (which GDF presents fall ’10) was a great pleasure for me. I love Vincent’s work and SAN is no exception. Of course, seeing GULA, the perfect solo of all time, again after so many years was really the icing on my festival cake. I do not know where all SAN is going in the states but for those of you who are fans of Vincent’s please come to Albuquerque to see the work if no other nearby opportunity is available. If anyone reading this attended any of the MASA showcasing festivals in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire in the 90s, Vincent performed GULA for the first time at one of them and it was the talk of the event. This beautiful man becomes an equally beautiful BIRD. He does. It happens before your eyes without benefit of accoutrement. It is an exquisite perfectly choreographed gem of the kind of precise and compelling movement that will become Vincent’s dance signature.
  2. Nelisiwe Xaba’s BLACK!…WHITE is an exceptional work but I am most excited about the possibility of bringing the two solos about the Hottentot Venus to Albuquerque. The Hottentot Venus, a young South African woman raised mostly in Cape Town, exotically pretty with larger-than-average buttocks, was exhibited throughout much of Europe as part of a Nineteenth century obsession with “freak” shows. She became the generally unwilling symbol of a colonial mindset that equated difference, i.e. non-white/non-European, with inferiority and the right to subjugate. 
  3. PJ Sabbagha with Deep Night was one of two big festival surprises for me. A work about violence against women with powerful dancers, original choreography and even a message! (I like messages). This work is pure dance, less theatrical than much of the work here.  
  4. THE TIME OF SMALL BERRIES is still for me the most important piece I’ve seen in awhile. I have already described it at length, so unless I have some comments from Sello Pesa and/or Peter Van Heerden I won’t say more. I did talk to a couple of other people here who agree that it is indeed a very weighty work full of cultural references that are way over our American heads but which, with a little research, are readily available. The Struggle is so recent (and goes on) and the wounds still raw so work like this has political and social resonance that ‘you had to be there’ to grasp. I am reminded a little of the Laramie Project although this is much more layered and purposefully messy.
  5. Meeting with Malcolm Purkey/Artistic Director/Market Theater. I know many people in the U.S. know Malcolm but I did not and it was a thrill for me to meet someone so connected with theater in South Africa and especially the Market Theater. I explained to him that several members of Africa Consortium were interested in incorporating more theater into our programs but that many of us have fairly modest budgets and are generally interested in smaller and, in some cases, work at the more experimental end of the spectrum. Malcolm will be more than happy to work with Consortium members if we are interested in some of the original work produced by the Market.  
  6. Boyzie Cekwana’s Influx Controls: wanna be wanna be is nothing if not unique! It is a solo so Boyzie’s imposing presence is everything. It is all about the world’s dark political forces and the masks we’re made to wear for survival so for a first passage of performance time, Boyzie carefully paints on a glossy black and red persona, which will appear quite evil or ironic or megalomaniacal or sorrowful or coquettish, depending on the moment. And then talks and moves his way through a condemnation of what’s wrong with the world all the while in his vest of explosives, eventually changing his black satin pants for a white tutu. A chorus in the back of the audience sings a moving and beautiful South African hymn/gospel along the way but much of the sound is simply Boyzie’s soft husky voice reiterating the woes that befall us because of our political leaders. At the end, with the artist, a quite large and lovely guy in red sneakers, white tutu, white satin bomb vest with red explosives, sunglasses and a crown of thorns, possibly sitting in your lap, you know you’ve just been part of a pretty remarkable piece. You will probably only have sporadically understood where the artist is going but then that’s the charm of the dance adventure isn’t it?

Wednesday night, I abandoned dance and bought a ticket to Foreplay at the Market Theater by a controversial young playwright labeled the ‘Township Tarantino,’ Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom. Foreplay consists of a diverse range of explicit sex acts—initiated or forced by the preacher, the playwright, the politician and the pleading boy. The women who submit unwillingly, semi-willingly and commercially are flawed but actually come across as stronger and smarter than the men. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s the user, who’s the used. It is in your face front-row sex; one reviewer says “Foreplay is an essay on sex in Pretoria townships.” Figures…Pretoria is the primary seat of government. And HIV/AIDS is ever present but since its presence is represented by bubble gum bubbles and pink balloons I did not get that until reading the review.  I must admit to being bothered by the giggles of the students (in their preppy uniforms of pleated skirts, dress slacks, white blouses and shirts, dark jackets and ties) in attendance and for that matter much of the rest of the audience. The more sexually graphic and violent the scene the louder the laughter it seemed.  Okay okay okay…I am a little old lady in tennis shoes! All in all…the acting was powerful and the dance interludes intermingled with all that sex could be said to link Foreplay to Dance Umbrella!

 Politics and Ranting

I so love this country. A history like ours but not so buried or air-brushed into meaninglessness. South Africans aren’t pretending they’ve won the battles against racism, sexism, bad politicians yet. The battles still rage throughout the media and throughout the arts. I personally think America hasn’t won the battle either but we do tend to gloss everything over by—Shopping! Being politically crazy cautious!  Shopping some more! Voting for a man of African heritage and then not going back to the polls to elect people that are going to support his plans!  Shopping some more! Both countries—big spaces, pioneers, battles aplenty. Subjugation of the native peoples. Slavery/reconstruction/apartheid. And good energy and beautifully diverse smart people and great artists. Only the Struggle is fresh in the minds of the population here and the artists and thinkers are making certain it is explored thoroughly before being relegated to the history books largely ignored everywhere.

Jump to the present. Can’t confuse President Zuma (with his 3-4 wives and at least 20 children) with President Obama. Can equate the Tea Party types and their ‘traditional values’ with Zuma’s traditional values however which he uses to justify his large family. When people are baffled by life’s intricacies and feel like they’ve lost control, they turn to a past airbrushed with simplicity—called a time of traditional values. Where men were men and everybody knew their place. So, my female friends and relatives and acquaintances… we know, we’ve always known, that “traditional values” is ALWAYS ALWAYS a code phrase that means ‘women beware…you are about to be put back in your place—and that place, if you remember,  was NOT a desirable place to be.’ We have our problems in the U.S. with the traditionalists just as South Africans do with Zuma. I wish us all well.

The delectable delicious mopane worm

I eat the worm!

2 Comments on “Out of Africa. For now.

  1. Now that I’ve found your blog, I can read it regularly. Well done!

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