SAHETI School’s transformative vision of theatre

| April 6, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Daniela Pitt

Questions that absorb educationists andpoliticians alike centre around equippingchildren for a world for a better, value-centred future.

Yet the reality today seems to indicate that for the youth, the vision of ubuntu is a dream that has not been achieved in its full measure. We have always had amongst us those who want war. We can draw on the injuries and injustices of our past as inexhaustible fuel to feed the fires of hatred. That our fires did not burn more furiously is due to many, including Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk.

The ancients inspired ethical choices
Twenty years after the release of Mandela from Victor Verster prison, SAHETI School in Bedfordview used thespian skills to offer pupils the opportunity to question possibilities in a challenging and changing South Africa. Focusing on the school’s value-centred ethics grounded in ancient Greek philosophy, the Executive Head of the school, Anastasia Krystallidis, extolled the teachings of classicism: “The world that confronted our ancestors was plagued by conflict. It was the wisdom of the teachings of Socrates, Aristotle and other great philosophers and tragedians that inspired ethical, responsible choices made by the classical youth so that their world could become a world of realistic opportunities. Things are no different here in South Africa today. The ancient theatre becomes the moral ground for many teachings. The Soctratean motto of the school – ‘Know Thyself ’ – inspires philosophical engagement at SAHETI. If all South African children get to know themselves and their peers better, their world and their informed choices will create happiness and opportunities for transformative peace. Such has been our vision for staging The Prize of Peace.”

Debating the fragile nature of reconciliation The play deals with a fictional dialogue between Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk on the eve before the two leaders jointly receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway (they received the accolade in 1993). As their individual contexts are revealed, the audience engages with the possibility of peace in a vulnerable world. The knowledge of a subversive murder plot becomes the new and immediate challenge confronting the leaders, and hunting, sacrifice and iconic peace the central metaphors of this postapartheid play. In the spirit of ubuntu, The Prize of Peace debates the fragile nature of reconciliation. The play – featuring Jason Michael as De Klerk, Faith Tshibingu as Mandela, Gabriella Zachos as a security guard
and Eleni Bizos as a chef, and directed by Francois van der Merwe – was world-premiered on the SAHETI stage in 2010. Playwright Les Morison was moved to write the play for a younger audience by a radio interview with renowned director Janet Buckland in 2009. “She told me,” comments Morison, “that one cannot doubt the power of theatre after observing the effect on a community of a theatrical production in which that community’s young people have shone.”

An ongoing life
Morison’s play was explored – both pre-and post-production – in SAHETI’s senior English classrooms against the backdrop of comparative discussions about Athol Fugard’s play The Blood Knot and the English Home Language setwork The Native Commissioner by Shaun Johnson. Study of these texts resulted in meaningful and valuable engagement with real issues and events within South Africa, both past and present. Literature – and in particular theatre – became a living experience of a thinking community.

The Prize of Peace garnered interest from each grade level at SAHETI. Some classes were tasked with writing reviews, others produced newspaper articles, and still others conducted interviews with the main characters. At Grade 11 level, Roland Barthes’ notions of readable and writable texts engendered a vigorous debate about the role of the audience. Further exciting debate centred around the play’s genre: both students and teachers decided it forms part of what can be called ‘post-transformative literature’. In other words, even if the play foregrounds apartheid injustices, engagement with, and understanding of, these events and issues is positioned in a South Africa undergoing intensive and complex socio-political transformation.

Text available; performance brought message home
As part of SAHETI’s social responsibility programme, the school made these teaching materials available to other educators for use in their schools (The Prize of Peace was motivated as a possible text for study by pupils studying both the Independent Examinations Board’s English, and Speech and Drama.) In addition, proceeds from the gala evening performance were donated to the George Bizos SAHETI Scholarship and Bursary Fund, which continues to educate South African children from the broader South African community.

But perhaps the greatest joy was generated on opening night. Pupils commented that the play was a visual encounter with the world of apartheid and afforded them the opportunity to challenge racial stereotypes prevalent during that time, and perhaps still prevalent today. Adults were captivated by the personas envisaged by the actors. Young and old alike recalled the thrill of the closing moments when the audience witnessed how a possible tragedy has the potential to be thwarted. In today’s South Africa, our numerous new challenges need not necessarily end in tragedy. The Prize of Peace reflects a compassionate and ethical mode of behaviour, and has proven to be a significant discussion vehicle for the choices and difficulties that our youth and leaders encounter.

Daniela Pitt is Director of Academics at SAHETI School.

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Category: Autumn 2011, Featured Articles

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