In an earlier entry, I alluded to a characteristic truth of this tour: the ground we gain one day will have to be regained the next. Just as we learn how to connect to one audience, we are confronted with a new group of strangers, with different needs. We develop a flexible stage plot and then arrive to find a pillar in the center of the room.
Last night we had one of our most rewarding performances. Today we had our most challenging.
Yesterday evening we were invited to perform at the District Six Museum Homecoming Centre. An historically mixed neighborhood, District Six was a vital hub of economic and cultural life for non-white communities in Cape Town. In particular, many black and Malay residents made District Six their home. In the late 60s, the Afrikaaner government declared District Six a white area. Though they (the government) claimed the neighborhood was a slum, swamped in irremediable crime, residents widely saw the move as a blatant land grab for valuable real estate nestled between Table Mountain and the port. The government forcibly removed more than 60,000 people by 1982 and ultimately razed nearly all existing buildings.
A rather blunt allegory of these events, featuring aliens, can be seen in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.
The District Six museum commemorates the life of historic District Six, as well as other displaced communities across South Africa. It is also committed to the return of former residents to the district, a policy begun by Mandela’s government in the 90s.
So last night our company walked into a beautiful room, alive with the memories of a vibrant culture and painful loss, and curated by a staff of passionate citizens. Our audience comprised friends of the museum (mostly a very international group of women) as well as some local arts supporters the actors met at a jazz club during our night off.
The reaction was enthusiastic. Once again the post-show discussion lasted longer than the show itself. I tried to keep up with the comments, but I’m afraid most of what I have are unattributed scribbles:
A woman in the front row: “The line about ‘from many blows comes wisdom’ – I’m not sure our leaders have suffered enough blows.”
An American expat: “’To be wise, we must first think’. Right now it feels like thinking is not very popular where I’m from.”
A younger man in the audience offered a challenge to the play: “Conflict happens, in our time,” he said, “between the powerful and the other. The Greek stories are all within a family. They are the royal family, they are all powerful.” Although no one was able, in my opinion, to sufficiently respond to his point last night, it is evidently an idea Mosher has at times considered: in the costuming phase we went over and over the question of whether it was important to see Antigone and Ismene as princesses – which they are – or if our story is better served seeing them as young women, powerless within the structure of society.
One audience member asked the cast where they drew the inspiration to enter the world of the play. Peter responded, “my character has to stand up to the audacity of his father, and I read, over the past few weeks, Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela’s book, and I took inspiration from Mandela’s actions, and what he faced.” Marcel added, echoing a guiding principle of our production “It wasn’t a leap for me to get into my character. This world is the world I live in.”
His answer bounced back from a number of women in the audience, who said they related to the play because the violence of Antigone’s world is the violence they see in their home countries.
By all rights today should have been every bit as excellent. We were meant to perform on Robben Island, the infamous prison where so many black South Africans, including Mandela and other leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, were held and tortured. The Robben Island prison became a symbol of the oppressive regime. And since the end of apartheid, that symbol has been partly transformed into a testament to the heroism and endurance of so many political prisoners who suffered but did not give in. Mandela himself is supposed to have performed in Antigone while imprisoned on the island. Needless to say, we were all very excited.
But, to quote the play, men are nothing in the eyes of the gods. Powerful winds this morning shut down the Robben Island ferry. Disappointment commingled with denial and caused, for a brief moment, madness to flare up within the company: there was loose talk of chartering a private boat or swimming to the island (to play for the seals, presumably?). Instead, we settled into the auditorium offered us by the Robben Island Museum at the V&A Waterfront.
Rather, we began to settle in, until we discovered a fair portion of the lights were broken and the show would not be visible. We packed up again and moved to a small open hall on the other side of the museum used to hold the queue for the ferry. The new room offered a view of the water obstructed only by two large metal detectors and airport-style x-ray conveyor belts. The room was also open, by way of a ramp and floor-to-ceiling glass panels, open to the museum’s entrance hall and foyer. And as if that weren’t enough, we learned, ten minutes before the show, that our intended audience, a group of 40 high school students, would no longer becoming – some confusion over the provision of lunch – and instead we would be performing for basically whoever happened to pass through the museum, plus a smattering of those who saw a Facebook announcement late last night.
“That was hard,” an actor said to me afterwards.
Did the phones at the front desk ring throughout the performance? You bet. Did the metal detector beep when Marcel made his entrance as the Guard? Of course. Did several museum patrons wander into the room, thinking to see the normal exhibition, sit down, confused, to watch a portion of the play, and then leave some minutes later when they’d had enough? Yep yep.
All that said, I believe our actors demonstrated real toughness: despite all the setbacks and disappointments, they gave the people who came a real show. They powered through. And many of those who did come approached the actors afterwards to thank them for it.
In the words of JK Simmons in Burn After Reading, what did we learn, here? Probably not much. Except we’re going to have to take the toughness uncorked today and try it all again tomorrow, in circumstances that could be as rewarding as the District Six Museum or as challenging as the Robben Island Musuem.
Tomorrow is a two-show day. Our final two performances of this tour.