AFRICAN STUDIES QUARTERLY

Drama for a New South Africa: Seven Plays. David Graver (Ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. 228 pp. cloth $39.95; paper: $16.95.


In the opening paragraph of this volume of South African plays, David Graver states that his goal is to keep American attention on South African theatre "now that apartheid has passed" because of its "universal lessons and appeal." Theatre enthusiasts should recognize a wealth in South Africa of "hybrid dramatic forms" combining "African and European" (also named as "industrialized and developing)" aesthetic values, which are "rich in vivid language, forceful performance styles and incisive social function" (p. 1).

I can only imagine that this glossing over of these complicated and controversial ideas may have been forced upon this otherwise respected scholar by his publisher for marketing purposes. In rescuing what he perceives to be America's flagging interest in South African theatre, however, Graver does make a point worth considering. This is the idea that it was not artists who faced a crisis of imagination after apartheid (a debate which flourished in South African intellectual circles), but audiences, particularly overseas audiences. He does not use this point, however, to catalyze any substantial discussion on transnational processes in South African theatre.

Reading through the introduction, one wonders why Graver professes interest in bringing South African plays to the attention of the West, since he notes that certain plays, while important in a South African context, lack an emotional impact that would make them seem "crude and schematic" by "European standards of dramaturgy" (p. 15). While his introduction discusses theatre of "social function", such as township community theatre and workers' theatre, he pronounces it lacking in "significant autonomous aesthetic appeal" (p.14) for an anthology.

Graver acknowledges a literary bias in this collection, bowing out from including more community-oriented plays, or a community-oriented analysis. Such perspectives, however, remain a vital part of the landscape of South African theatre for the very reason that they address issues of marginalization, gender equality, education, poverty, crime, and cultural identity, all pressing issues in the wake of apartheid. Given this, it is surprising and unfortunate that Graver would choose such glib phrasing as "wife abuse has become a popular topic lately in South Africa" (p.14).

Although Graver's introduction covers far more ground than just the scripts he has selected for the anthology, it is impossible in a twenty-page introduction to do justice to the history and range of South African theatre. It might have been more important, therefore, to focus on the historical moment called "post-apartheid" and how the problematics of this term are reflected in the plays he has selected. The historical category, "post-apartheid," is a vexed one as the legal changes that have been implemented have not significantly improved the material lives of the majority of South Africans. By including plays that were written during the height of resistance to apartheid, the implication is that Graver views post-apartheid as an imaginative category rather than one that corresponds to reality. However, he does not follow through on this point. Instead he focuses on a "rainbow nation" definition of "post-apartheid" by insuring a representative "sampling" of plays, from "Afrikaner, Anglo, African, and Indian communities" (p.19). Moreover, the limited analysis he gives revolves around the rather reductive themes he names as belonging to this era of "post-apartheid theatre," namely: "the recovery of the past; abiding social injustices; and hybrid theatrical forms" (p. 7). Such broad, general categories could be applied to any number of South African theatre works, from those created in opposition to apartheid to those created during its crumbling and aftermath, no less than to the theatre of several other nations.

The collection itself opens with the seemingly obligatory and marketable "Sophiatown" (1986), one of the most famous South African plays. This play as well as Zakes Mda's "And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses" (1988) and Paul Slabolevsky's "Mooi Street Moves" (1992) have all previously appeared in print in other places, although granted they were published in South Africa and not the US. We can be thankful, however, for the remaining offerings which have not yet to my knowledge appeared in print: Ismail Mohomed's "Purdah" (1993), Reza de Wet's "Crossing" (1994), Nicholas Ellenbogan's "Horn of Sorrow" (1988), and Brett Bailey's "Ipi Zombi?" (1998). These last two choices were particularly bold but welcome, since their performance styles are so distinctive that it might have seemed counterintuitive to attempt to represent them in print form.

However, it might have been even more suitable to the goals of a volume of plays from the "new" South Africa to include more recent examples of "post-election theatre" that are at least historically congruent with what is really new, namely the adoption of a democratic constitution. It would also have been gratifying to see more plays given first-time publication, works that have not already had much academic discourse surrounding them. Examples of such plays might include, Mike van Graan's "Dinner Talk" (1996), which could be considered as a formal opening of the discussion on "post-apartheid" issues; Craig Coetzee's tour-de-force, "White Men With Weapons" (1996), or the memorable community work, "Gomorrah" (1997). Alternatively, with Graver's insistence on emphasizing the combined European-ness and African-ness of South African theatre, and his concern with appealing to the American audience, it might have been interesting, for example, to include a play like "Good Woman of Sharkeville" (1996), Janet Suzman and Gcina Mhlophe's restaging of Brecht's similarly titled play.

Despite his literary propensities, Graver does acknowledge the inability of a play's script to give an impression of its performance. To his credit, he supplements the texts with information on the staging and performance techniques, and has preserved the multilingual qualities of the scripts by including translations and a glossary of terms. Each of the plays is accompanied by a short biographical account of the playwright, a performance history and, in most instances, a brief account of political implications or context. Thus, while this anthology may fall short of expectations of scholars of South Africa, it does certainly make a range of compelling scripts from South Africa easily accessible to an American audience.

Stephanie Marlin-Curiel
Department of Performance Studies
New York University