Friday, July 29, 2011

South African Theatre- Barney Simon

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Barney Simon- Black Dog

Barney Simon grew up in Johannesburg, his love for theatre grew from a childhood addiction of cinema. He returned to South Africa in 1960 after spending four years in England and was determined to pursue a career in theatre. Athol Fugard’s plays and ‘non-racial’ rehearsal strategies inspired and excited Simon, he formed a relationship of mutual respect and the two of them have influenced the way theatre is made in South Africa today.

Simon’s plays were staged in a manner that is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Under Milk-wood’ where the action moves from each cameo setting using lighting techniques. The audience then connects their own story through the various suspended actions of the actors on stage and the actors thus complete different facets of the same tale by telling their different perspectives, thereby making the story multi-dimensional.

The way in which Simon wrote his plays was through workshops. He would work closely with the actors and encourage them to draw from personal experience or from observing others.

“It was (during his time in New York) that he reached an understanding which was to inform all his work in the future- the realisation that each person’s biography is as unique and personal as each person’s fingerprints; that every individual has a story to tell and every individual is capable of telling that story.” (Pat Schwartz; Born in the RSA -Barney Simon)

The play ‘Black Dog/Inj’emnyama’ was written in 1984 and took four weeks to workshop. The aim of this play according to Simon was to bring about a humanity associated with the different stereotypical roles adopted by people facing the reality of apartheid within each of their individual given circumstances. With the ultimate goal of moving toward a greater humanity. ‘Black Dog’ deals with a youth who has been exhiled after being involved in the 1976 Soweto Uprisings.

The Uprisings remain a historically livid benchmark in the Apartheid struggle because it was a day of innocent bloodshed from which the police could not shift the blame as they had done in so many instances before. The Uprising was staged by Students who no longer wanted to study in Afrikaans which was not their home-language and they also no longer wanted a different education to their white peers. At the time, black South Africans were being taught what was known as the ‘Bantu education act’ which was simply training them in the fields for which they would then be useful to work for Whites such as gardening and house-keeping. The Uprising got rowdy and stones were thrown at the police who then opened live-fire killing some of the students, and injuring many others.

The results of the Soweto Uprising included in the students now having a political identity and when the Afrikaans language policy was altered in schools, the students were not satisfied and called for the abolition of Apartheid as a whole and the release of their leaders. As many as 4000 students left the country to undergo military training via the ANC so that they may take up the struggle. Despite the blood shed, the Soweto Uprising is seen today as a proud and glorious rebellion and not as a massacre. And the students who died are not seen as victims but as heroes against the apartheid struggle. This is the reason why Madoda (the character of Black Dog) is so revered. As he is a freedom fighter, someone who was going to motivate and lead his people to freedom.

Born in the RSA and Black Dog were written a year apart (1984 - 1985) and Black dog has been said to be a play about South Africans trapped in an Apartheid system, whereas Born in the RSA is a play about South Africans moving about in that trap. This can be linked to the different political feel that the country experienced during this year’s transition. During the period 1977-1984 (leading up to ‘Black-Dog’) the government, while attempting to retain apartheid, commissioned a small group of elite blacks to act as a bulwark against the masses. These new Black Local Authorities were granted full municipal status and held the same powers as white councillors. Instead of placating the masses, this angered and infuriated them even more and eventually led to the 1984-1986 uprisings. Barney Simon said of these uprisings that followed ’Black Dog’

I don’t think, that it was a coincidence that Nj’emnyama was followed by riots. We didn’t cause them, but merely smelled them coming. It’s there the whole tone of the play and I think that’s an extraordinary indication of theatre as a sensor. (Born in the RSA- Barney Simon)

Although Simon was very thorough about his premise that there were to be no use of stereotypical people in his plays, I think the basic character outlines of the white characters can be deemed stereotypical. Simon did however explore each individual person and create an empathy, which comes from knowing someone’s inner thoughts and emotions, so in that sense there were no stereotypes. However, with characters such as Raymond, the soldier and Glen the policeman-turned political spy there is the stereotypical aspect of the white law-enforcers, and there are the classic white Afrikaans female teachers, such as Rita. All of the white characters in these two plays have complex situations and are functioning under a lot of different roles which involve their own personal dramas. Mia is a widow, living on in the memory of her late husband, she is fighting the struggle he never finished, so it adds a personal dimension to it.

Raymond demands a certain degree of sympathy. Even though he is a trained ‘killing machine’ which means he was trained not to think, just to act, and we cant judge him for doing so, because he was doing his job. but his moral integrity shows through in rare moments such as when he describes finding a photo of one of the dead black men in the field, and realising that they had to leave girlfriends and perfect lives to protect what they held most dear, their freedom, which they would strive for no matter what, whereas Raymond is held as an icon by his old school and a war hero. Although he was a war hero, his human side was touched by the pathetic discovery that the blacks he was fighting had been eating grass, only, to survive. Raymond had a coping strategy of thinking about school and happier days whilst out on the battlefield, and when he returns to his school afterwards he has a breakdown, because all his locked away fears and ghosts from the war were now haunting him, because he could associate the memories of school with the memories of war. This leads to him lashing out at the coloured Bennie, but the audience still reserves a certain amount of respect for Raymond, the white soldier, the enemy, the perpetrator of apartheid, because we understand that he is a victim too, a victim of the system. He had to confront the dual reality, the system was telling him that the blacks were the enemy but he also put a human face on the enemy, and this is when we realise that he does not share the ideologies of apartheid.

Characters such as Rita and Nikki show the ignorance of the whites to the political struggle because they are far more concerned with their personal social lives than the political situation surrounding them. This further highlights the fact that the blacks had nothing else to strive towards, there was nothing on their horizons except for the political struggle which they were facing.

At this time, the migration of the whites to Canada and Australia began, and was known as the “Chicken Run” because whites were fearful of the Black Consciousness movements and a possible violent uprising. Also whites who could not stand the injustice of apartheid would rather leave than live under it’s confines.(Mia’s brother from Australia tells her to leave when he sees how young Dumisani has been treated.) Therefore the whites had an escape door and they could function in the freedom that they could leave if things did not go their way, the blacks had no such luxury. P.W. Botha reinforced the idea that the ANC was actually only a Russian trained communist party, and the South African government was not fighting the blacks as a people but actually defending themselves against communism.

Barney Simon is truly an insightful playwright. Through the eyes of the white characters the poignant aspects of the struggle that the black people endured are revealed. This is effective because the white audiences of the time were then able to see the apartheid reality through white eyes and were thus better able to relate, instead of being simply shown the black’s problems, with which they would naturally have more difficulty relating to. They were shown human tragedy felt and experienced by fellow humans regardless of colour. Humanity is revealed in each character and the specific drama involving that character, presents multi-dimensional levels of human understanding. Stereotypes ranging from lawyers, activists, soldiers, policemen, teachers and families are given depth and personal reality. Therefore they are able to add more value to the issues of that time. The struggle is not merely a recording of historical facts, it is human tragedy and drama played out on a confrontational stage. Although there are multiple individual dramas on different levels of extremities, they are all superbly interwoven into the one overriding theme of man’s inhumanity to man.

Angel Campey


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