South African Theatre Scene: In Transition

"During apartheid we saw many white people flocking to black theatre because they felt guilty and wanted to show everyone they were against apartheid." So asserts Selaelo Maredi, a black South African playwright-actor-director. "Now that apartheid no longer exists, the whites don't feel guilty and don't come to black theatre either. As a matter of fact, most white people in South Africa would rather see a bad white play than a good black one, even in their own community theatres. Integrated audiences are rare and mixed casts even less common."

Maredi, a 60ish Johannesburg native and a pioneer of black South African theatre, is undoubtedly a witness to a changing South Africa and how those developments are reflected in theatre.

Maredi notes, for example, that during the 45 years of apartheid, black South Africans used theatre to tell the world about their condition. "It was protest theatre. In a post-apartheid world, black South African theatre is freed to look at life beyond the political."

Consider Maredi's latest play--"Beautiful Things," now playing Off-Broadway at the Henry Street Settlement Abrons Art Center, through May 27. Written and directed by Maredi, "Beautiful Things" is a love story between two lost souls.

The play is set in a small town outside of Johannesburg and both of the protagonists?one of whom is played by Maredi?are the victims of a society in transition. The woman is the most emotionally battered. Her husband and kids have been murdered. And she has been raped seven times.

While the play does not indicate who the criminals are, Maredi says they are black men and places the blame for their criminality, in part, on the vacuum that has been created during South Africa's transitional period. In "Beautiful Things" the country's sense of rootlessness serves as the basis for a morality tale.

"Before the new government, law and order could be maintained a bit, anyway," he comments. "Now, there's lawlessness. Black South Africans had no place in the old South Africa and they don't have a place in the new one either, although we all thought everything would change. And that hasn't happened. We have a legacy of criminality.

"But that doesn't justify our wickedness," he stresses. "Many black South African plays are now saying 'Do this and don't do that.' We are attempting to instill the belief in our audiences that we have to save each other. We are each other's strength. That's what happens in this play."

Growth of a Storyteller

The son of a department store salesman, Maredi attended?and ultimately graduated from?an industrial school, where he was trained to be a tailor. The problem, says Maredi, was that "there were no jobs for tailors who were black. It was a job for whites only. I had spent my own money and four years in a school for no purpose. It made no sense. But then nothing about apartheid made sense. To this day, I can't look at a sewing machine."

Theatre became for Maredi a way to express political rage. More important, it was an extension of his storytelling roots. "Both my grandfathers were terrific storytellers," he reports. "Storytelling is the backbone of all of my plays."

In 1971 Maredi forged the Johannesburg-based Experimental Theatre Workshop, the first integrated theatre company in South Africa. As he tells it, this was a mixed bag experience.

"The majority of the actors were white," he recalls. "It was the 'in' thing for many white actors and the director was white?a man who liked to do sensitivity exercises." He pauses, "In one of these exercises we'd all walk around blindfolded and find a partner and touch him all over to discover what he felt like. Still blindfolded we'd then break up again. The goal was to find your partner. We were supposed to do this on the basis of what he or she felt like.

"The white actors could locate their partners quickly. The black actors, on the other hand, could not," he continues. "It turned out that the black actors were afraid to touch the white actors and when they finally did, the whites were terribly uncomfortable. The whites didn't mind touching the black actors, but they didn't want the black actors to touch them. Out of 65 white actors in the company, five remained."

South African theatre at the moment is in a kind of stalemate, reports Maredi, who would like to see a number of things change. Heading the list: assigning plays in universities written by non-Europeans.

"We also need to re-educate actors and writers to create theatre that includes many ethnic groups and crosses color lines. I know blacks would be interested in that approach. I'm not sure about whites."

And finally, he says, "South African theatre needs to "take itself seriously and view itself as a business the way theatre does in New York. In South Africa, theatre is just seen as a hobby, a light entertainment."

Maredi looks forward to the day when "a set like the one in August Wilson's 'King Hedley II' could be seen in a South African play. We're still using flats."