Making your mark: the Grahamstown festivals

| October 13, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Jane Hofmeyr

Freezing cold, rainy weather, wrapping up in layers of winter woollies, rushing from event to event, grabbing what you can to eat, enduring hard seats and late nights – who would want to do all this? Only aficionados of the annual National Arts Festival (NAF) in Grahamstown – and I confess I am a new convert.

Now in its 38th year, the NAF has grown to be one of the leading arts festivals in Africa, with 200 770 attendees this year. It aims to provide quality performances, encourage innovation and development in the arts by providing a platform for both established and emerging South African artists, create opportunities for collaboration with international artists, and build new audiences. There is a huge range of options on offer across the Main, Arena and Fringe programmes, offering music, theatre, dance, film, comedy, art, lectures at the Winter School and poetry courtesy of Wordfest. Those who like arts and crafts and retail therapy (I am guilty as charged) can also have a field day at the hub of arts, crafts and delicious foods, the Village Green.

Playground for the artistically curious

Deciding what to attend requires hours of reading reviews and detailed planning – at the level of a military campaign. My friends and I chose well. Death of a Colonialist tells the story of fictional character Harold Smith, an ageing and eccentric History teacher at a high school in Grahamstown. His passion is South African history, and especially the history of the amaXhosa.

Although near the end of his career, Harold believes his passionate teaching will always win the day. He is so wrapped up in the past, however, that he is not aware that his wife has terminal cancer and is determined to conceal it from him.

This funny, sad and moving play weaves between the tragedy of our past and the challenges of our present. Harold embodies the tension of being a critical patriot, as the play explores what it means to be South African. As a former History teacher, I was struck by his words in the final scene that underline the importance of knowing history without being defined by it: “We have to accept our history, because it’s where we come from. It’s who we are. We have to stop being ashamed of our past.” He then asserts: “We all have shares here.”

The other award-winning, all- South African play that captivated me was London Road, the story of two very different women: Stella, a young Nigerian woman, and Rosa Kaplowitz, an elderly Jewish widow, who both live in a block of flats in London Road in Sea Point, Cape Town. Common themes unite them: absent men, scattered families, broken relationships, a dark sense of humour and a determination to survive and connect. They eventually become friends, who make the audience laugh and cry as they support each other through the vicissitudes of life.

Reframing history in powerful ways

The next two plays took us away from South Africa and back in time, to Verona in Italy and Japan after the atom bomb fell. Shakespeare’s R&J is set in a boarding school, where four pupils discover an illicit copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and, as they start acting it out, their understandings of themselves and the world are turned upside down and new realisations emerge. This engrossing play has run for over a year in New York.

Sadako is the story of a little girl, just two years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The family home was destroyed but Sadako escaped uninjured, only to contract leukaemia from the effects of the bomb and die 10 years later. Through puppets, the play tells how a friend brought Sadako a folded paper crane in hospital and told her that, according to Japanese legend, the crane lives for a thousand years, and a sick person who folds a thousand cranes will become well again.

Sadako folded 644 cranes before she died. In 1958, a statue was erected in Hiroshima Peace Park, dedicated to her and to all the children who were killed by the atom bomb. A prayer is engraved on the base of the statue: “Peace Crane, I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world” (Sadako Sasaki, age 12).

National Schools Festival

I also had the pleasure of interacting with pupils at the National Schools Festival, which follows the NAF. The Zenex Foundation, of which I am a trustee, sponsors disadvantaged learners who entered the English Olympiad. They arrive in buses from different provinces for a get-together, and then we accompany them to the opening ceremony of the Schools Festival. I studied the Schools Festival programme and was pleased to see that, out of 48 schools participating in the Festival, 12 were independent schools, of which nine are ISASA members.

Former Model C schools dominated the list, but there were also sponsored pupils from disadvantaged public schools. Both the Zenex-sponsored and other pupils have reported that the Festival is a life-changing experience, which broadens their appreciation of all the arts, and improves their understanding of English literature and theatre. When I read the programme of theatre shows and workshops by notable South African actors and academics, I could see why.

English Olympiad At a dinner on the Sunday night, I had interesting conversations with the top 15 pupils in the English Olympiad. Again I analysed the list of the winners. The top student is from St Andrew’s School, Bloemfontein; the second from York High School, George; and the third from St Patrick’s Christian Brothers’ College, Kimberley.

I was pleased to see that, in addition to St Patrick’s, seven other ISASA member schools had pupils in the top 20. Most interestingly, the ‘usual suspects’, did not dominate the list of St Dominic’s Academy Newcastle, Springfield Convent School, Uplands College, Somerset College, Chesterhouse School, St John’s Diocesan School for Girls and St John’s College.

Two realities

The Grahamstown of the festivals does not yet reflect the realities of all its inhabitants. Away from Rhodes University and the middle-class town centre, the divisions between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is striking: unemployment in the townships is between 70 and 80%, the roads are pockmarked with holes and many lowcost government houses are falling apart.

Electricity, water and sanitation are luxuries for many people. In Hlalani township, the Fingo Revolutionary Movement (FRM), an activist group, has organised its own festival to run parallel to the NAF. The group holds cultural events in the townships around Grahamstown in an effort to keep kids off the streets and away from crime, develop their potential through music and art, and provide platforms for local township artists to play to new audiences. Spokesperson Xolile Madinda says the group is influenced by the writings of thinkers like Steve Biko, and that its ethos is to “get up and change things for ourselves”. FRM is talking to the NAF about becoming part of it in future – a move that would bring the two realities together.

A kaleidoscope of images and thoughts

Vowing to attend again next year, I left the festivals with a kaleidoscope of images and thoughts filling my mind. The rich and varied talent of the performers and the promise of the youth were inspiring and rejuvenating. I realised again how much I miss teaching and being with young people. Siv Ngesi, a young and exciting South African comedian, was the keynote speaker at the official opening of the Schools Festival.

Siv was wonderfully witty and entertaining as he satirised all groups in South Africa – none were spared. I loved his throwaway line that his Blackberry is a “previously disadvantaged Berry”! He also had some serious words of wisdom for pupils: he advocated living with only a Plan A and no Plan B, with nothing to fall back on. He quipped that he doesn’t want to fall back; if he is going to fall, he wants to fall forward to see where he is going to land! The posters for the Schools Festival were hand-, foot- or mouth-prints headed by the question, “How will you make your mark?” I have no doubt that the pupils I met will become thinking, caring human beings who will make their mark.

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Category: Summer 2011

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