Thank-you from the Underground

Soc Med FdC

Above all to my (now) wife Suzanne, thank you.

On the evening of Sunday the 18th of March 2018 The Underground Library won Best Theatre Production for Children and Young People at the annual Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards. I was told I accepted the award and made a speech, but all I can remember is how hard my legs trembled.

From reports it seems I stuck close enough to my notes. If you had seen them, you would have read one sentence writ large across everything: There are too many people to thank them all.

Here then is my attempt to rectify that.

Tara Notcutt announced the award and that was very appropriate – she was the person I first pitched the idea to 4 years ago in Grahamstown. Tara, thank you for encouraging me from the beginning.

I wrote the first draft in early 2015 for a radio play competition (I didn’t win). Thank you to the people who read and gave me feedback: Marc Kay (who did win), Jon Minster and Melissa Loudon (who called my hacking scene ‘vaguely plausible’).

From there the script was adapted and submitted to the African Youth Theatre and Dance Festival hosted by Artscape and Assitej SA. Thando Doni directed a staged reading with a group of students. Thank you for your time and for firing me up in the talk-back. That festival was the first time I met Victoria Gruenberg, an American intern who gave me thorough, insightful and challenging notes, and my introduction to the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-work attitude of US writers.

From that festival it was selected to be a part of New Visions / New Voices in the USA – an opportunity created by Assitej SA and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Most costs were covered but I still had to raise money for flights.

As part of fund-raising we hosted a reading of a new draft at Alexander Bar. Jason Potgieter directing Faniswa Yisa, Mvelisi Mvandaba, Callum Tilbury, Richard September, Sive Gubangxa, Maggie Gericke, Cleo Raatus. You can listen to that early draft here: alexanderbar.co.za/undergroundlibrary

Fundraising for New Visions / New Voices (NV/NV) was an outpouring of support from family, friends and peers. Thank you all so much: Ma and Pa, Helen and Fumi, Malc and Jill, Sarah and Simon. Sanjin Muftić, Jayne Batzofin, Carla Lever, Andrew Whiting, Jennifer Downs, Karl Haupt, Aleida Heyns, Sandy Jeffery, Fred and Joy Boerlage, Ann and Jannie Wiegman, Blythe Linger, Melissa Loudon, Gaëtan Schmid, Helen Moffett, Wenda Redfern, Natasha Norman, Simon Cooper, Teri Davidoff, and Suzanne Duncan – who 2 years later is my fiance and my wonder every day.

(I may have missed donors, not every deposit had a decipherable code. Please let me know if you’ve been skipped.)

That got me to America for the first time in my life. The process was split into 2 parts, both rigorous examinations of the script. I lost track of how many drafts I was on by the end of it. I need to thank the fellow writers I went on the journey with: Vinati Makijany, Deepika Arwind, Sunil Bannur and my South African peers Tamara Guhrs, Lereko Rex Mfono, Mojalefa Samson Mlambo, and Koleka Putuma – whose talent as a poet and theatre-maker I am in awe of.

The experience was made possible Assitej SA, the Kennedy Center, The University of Maryland. Thank you people n all the organisations who made it possible: The leaders, the administrators, and the directors, dramaturgs and actors who gave notes, perspectives and their voices to bring the plays to life. Thank you Kim Peter Kovac, Patrick Crowley, Moriamo Akibu, Jeffrey Kaplan Lew Feem, Justin Weaks, Teresa Fisher, Karin Serres, Scot Reese, Meg Lowey, Faedra Carpenter, Deirdre Lavrakas and more, more, more (I want to name *all* of you individually but I didn’t keep careful enough notes.)

Returning I applied for funding supported by Maggie, my fearless assistant in all things bureaucratic and tea-fuelled.

We received funding from The Department of Arts and Culture and everything was on track to put together a full production at ASSITEJ International’s World Congress in 2017 at the Artscape.

Koleke Putuma led the creative team as director. Merryn Carver designed and made the wonderful costumes. Philip Kramer built the steel set. Dylan Owen did sounds and score. A special thanks to Shen Tian, whose otherworldly command of LEDs gave us a unique lighting feature that pushed the play into the dystopian future (10/10). Dara Beth was a excellent stagemanger to herd the talented cast: Thando Mangcu, Tankiso Mamabolo, Kathleen Stephens and Dustin Beck joining Maggie and Cleo from the first reading.

And the audiences who came to watch. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

So much of this process has been made possible by Assitej South Africa. Yvette Hardie and her team (special shout out to Yusrah Bardien and Jaqueline Dommisse) have built up theatre for young audience in this country and made a mark globally. Through their opportunities I have visited Rwanda, Sweden, Austria, India and the US. I have made new friends, found inspiring collaborators and insightful peers. I have been supported in the creation of new works – some of which continue to generate income for me.

It is in recognising how much I have gotten from Assitej SA that I pledge the prize money to them. I believe that we need organisations that grow and develop new writers, directors and performers. We need more theatre because theatre can change lives. It has mine.

Thank you for reading.

Green Peas

The knife chases the pea around the plate trying to herd it onto the fork, which is sloped in the correct manner. There’s already some food loaded on ready to go. The knife seems to have control of the defiant pea and onto the fork it goes – but it’s a trick. The pea leaps upward, knocking his captured brothers out of their bondage to scatter across the plate, knife in pursuit. The girl’s mouth is scrunched in frustration. She doesn’t even want to eat the gross green goblins but she’s furious that they would defy her. Their rebellion shows the weakness of her control and, like any despot, she cannot appear weak. The knife courses after the peas, a tireless hunter. The fork waits. One of the escapeas is isolated, cut off from the rest. With a wild screech the fork pounces, tines crashing down to impale the pea once and for all. But somehow fate grants a reprieve to the undeserving legume – instead of piercing the green skin, the plunging prong sends it into the air. The pea soars like a green comet over the little planet of the dinner table, a majestic arc accompanied by the praise of brass music. The diners could almost hear at its apex the scream of pure joyous defiance before it descends to golden paradise – splashing down in the patriarch’s flute of champagne.
The table is silent, all eyes fixed on the kamikaze pea.

“Emma,” the patriarch rumbles, “don’t play with your food.”

He fishes the pea out of his glass and pops it into his mouth, the sparkle of champagne still on its green hide.

The Tea Shop

The smell was a beaded curtain she had to push through to enter. At first it seemed unified but once her nose got over the shock she could parse different scents in the mix. The most powerful were the coffees; robust and earthy textures, some just released as the wood and iron grinders crushed the beans. Then there were spices, the distinctive sting of cinnamon, cloves, star anis. Cocoa sprawled lazily under it all, dark and heavy. Above these scents floated the teas, almost ethereal. They were farthest from the door and that’s where she headed. There were deep racks of loose leaf with prices by weight and a little scoop to fill the brown paper bags. Pre-weighed, paper-wrapped parcels were stacked in line with the teas, their labels plain. No cute colour-coding here. Just the names of the tea and their origins.

“We closing,” his voice was deep as the cocoa, his accent from as faraway as his wares.

“It’s only two,” she said, confused.

“Not today. We are closing shop. Permanent.”

He picks the syllables as carefully as she picks her tea. She looks around, searching for some sign of the end. But the store is as it ever was. She returns to her task, and after some deliberation pours a hundred grams of honeybush into a bag. It’s a reassuring flavor, a comfort. She goes to the counter and he rings up her small purchase on the battered register.

“You come for more. Next month we are closed.”

She nods him and thanks him. At the door she turns to look back, to breathe it in. Then she steps out into the street, the door chimes shut and the wind brushes away all the scents except for what she takes with her in a little brown bag.

Morning Rituals

He stood on the crate to reach the basin. I stood behind him and we observed each other in the mirror. This younger me, stamped with my jaw line and the subtly bent nose of my mother’s folk. He’d grow into his shoulders sooner than I had, I hoped so at least. His red-blonde hair was his mother’s though, so were his slate grey eyes. I leaned over him and showed him the strange morning ritual of the fellowship he wanted to join.

I had him cup his small hands and dispensed a blob of expanding white foam onto his palms. Then the same into my left. I spread it across my face with small circles and he imitated me on his. My fingers could feel the short rough regrowth since my shave yesterday morning. His face was soft and fresh and would be for a very long time. But it wasn’t about the practicality, the need was for a ritual. My father had taught me to shave in the same way. Inducting me into the society of men. The first step down a strange path that had led me to boarding school, to drinking, to rugby, to the army, to the border and to this moment… being a father. It’s not a path I wanted my child to walk and I thought I’d been lucky, life has other plans though. I took up my own razor and gave him a toothless mimic – he didn’t need a blade to learn. Not yet. There’d come a time for blood, but it wasn’t now.

We worked the razors across our faces, stripping off the foam and rinsing the implements in the basin of hot water. It was like peeling off a mask as we looked at ourselves with intent. At our exteriors. And it was done. Faces clean. I gave him a rough towel and his cheeks shone red.

“Go on, get dressed,” I said and the pride fled his face.

“It’s only til the end of term,” I said. “Then you’re at Andervale and you can wear what you like.”

He nodded and went to his room. I looked at myself in the mirror. I should have fought for him. But I couldn’t afford to, I told myself. Just get him into a new school where he could be happy and that would be it. My child would be fine, no matter where his path took him.

“OK, dad. I’m ready to go.”

He looked brave in the dress they made him wear to school. The dress I had made him wear for too long. He looked braver than me.