August 9, 2014
A month has past since the 40th National Arts Festival transformed Grahamstown from a nice college town into a throbbing center of dance, drama, wry stand-up comedy, food, music, poetry, debate, politics, and pageantry.
To me, it felt as if that edginess and energy of what I feel is the essence of my little academic home of Emerson College was transplanted and transformed into an indelibly South African mode. And what was truly South African? Or truly indicative of the National Arts Fest?
To begin with, the festival marked several anniversaries, but most importantly, the 20th anniversary of South African democracy. So the themes of remembrance, struggle, inhumanity and the effort for a better life could be found tucked in an artist’s painting, or in a collaborative poetry/photo exhibit or in the reprise of a one-woman show or the remake of a Greek tragedy.
The program for the 10 days was 300 pages long and every known sitting space from Boy/Girl Scout halls to lecture rooms became a place for artistry. A few black drapes, a platform and lights transformed these odd spaces into worthwhile stages.
While I had heard that “Woman in Waiting” was a one-woman drama that had been around for more than a dozen years, to see Thembi Mtshali-Jones tell her life story and to have it staged in such a searing way (thanks in part to co-writer and director Yael Farber) on this national anniversary still shakes me. I cried at least three times: once in the telling of how her domestic worker mother was belittled in front of her by her mother’s boss, another when she sang a song of how she prayed her child would never meet a white man (following the years of township raids under apartheid) and at the very end. Powerful and draining.
The other one-man show by a Dutch actor, “The Liberation of the Angry Little Man” was one of those presentations that throughout has you tee-heeing at the main character Franz’s bad luck in life as it is both absurd and yet a little too close for comfort. The actor drifted from narrator/friend to Franz to narrator/friend effortlessly so you kept wondering whose story was really being told.
And then I had to take in a stand-up comic, a former high school teacher now a comic. While his posters were all over the place, what drew me to his act was his “moving” ad pictured here.
Some of the humor and references were a little too Cape Town local. But most of his themes were universal in terms of attitudes toward public education, teachers and cultural silliness like creating a dance to penalty signals in rugby. I didn’t need to know the original signals to have the “dance” tickle me. In addition, after the noon-time show, he came out to mingle with his fans and he was surrounded by middle-aged and older ladies of color. They LOVED him and the feeling was mutual.
As for art, many local art exhibits featured a variety of artists yet I somehow gravitated to works presented by younger black artists.
Two young men whose work was in a room off the main entrance to the Stephen Biko Building, which was always packed because that was the location of the main box office, pulled me in. I had seen their work featured in an online journalism student’s virtual gallery tours. But seeing them with their art allowed me to see their joy in exhibiting their work.
I did wait until almost the end of festival to catch some music. I wanted to get to some performances that were not late at night as I was still adjusting to winter hours and time. And I found two great women doing contemporary folk: Laurie Levine and Josie Field. I even bought a CD although I have no CD player here in part to take to WERS to see if they have any interest in them. If not, no worries as I liked their stuff. What’s not to like when these two do throwback Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'” and a rendition of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home” plus some really great tunes of their own. Lots of toe-tapping to be sure.
So three dramas, two concerts and a standup comedian, all for about $50. Not bad. I missed Hugh Masekela (no tickets available no how) but I understand a closing night of fireworks before the concert set the stage for the rest of the evening. Plus the food was tasty throughout and bargains were plentiful on the last day of the festival.
Rumor has it that some artistic folks would like to see the festival in a bigger place, like Cape Town. While I love Cape Town, the intimacy of Grahamstown has its attraction. I’m not sure how a larger city could replicate the possible serendipity of an encounter with dancing schoolchildren in the Village Green or a busker standing motionless until a coin was caught in her cup outside Checkers. I’m just glad I got to experience it this year.