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Time to go home

Cape Town, SA

Well that’s it, I suppose. Three weeks on the road and it’s time to head back above the equator and into the middle of an east coast summer, which will be a bit of a shock to the system after enjoying weather in the mid sixties and low seventies here in this spectacular city situated at the southwestern tip of Africa.

For months people have been preparing us for Cape Town’s beauty, comparing the place favorably to cities like San Francisco, which of course resonates pretty strongly with me. When you bring San Francisco into the comparison I reflexively bring out my skeptic’s tackle box, which has been outfitted over the years with lures and tools of all sorts to help you understand just where and why your comparison is faulty.

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The V&A Waterfront and Table Mountain

As soon as we stepped off the airplane, though, I understood it. It was the air. I could just feel it—cool, clear, light, almost imperceptibly salty—and as we drove into the city center and the V&A Waterfront came into view, the comparison strengthened in my own mind, too. It looked like the Wharf (good and bad), and who doesn’t love moored sailboats? The weather was almost perfect (a little windy, maybe, but it was a very San Franciscan wind) which only increased my frustration at the illness I hadn’t managed to kill while in Grahamstown. I would wind up spending the majority of our two free days in my hotel room, drinking water and popping a Tylenol equivalent, while others bopped here and there, exploring this fabulous place and its environs, including the nearby wine-grown region.

Don’t you fret about me, though, because my dear old friend Hayley came to the rescue. She extracted me from the room, threw me in her little go-kart car and whisked me up and down winding roads to explore Table Mountain, Signal Hill and the magnificently gorgeous Camps Bay, which looks like a stretch of coastline in Malibu or Laguna or somewhere similarly wonderful.

I hadn’t seen Hayley in something like three years—when she moved to Cape Town from California—and was relieved to find her master of her domain in what to me is a very foreign, far-off land where they drive on the wrong side and more homes than not seem to be protected by concrete walls and razor wire. I’ve known Hayley for about twenty years and in that time we’ve been through the kinds of things any meaningful twenty-year friendship ought to have so I think deep down I knew she’d have Cape Town by the horns, but seeing it was a great thrill.

But after the better part of a month in South Africa, this little ragtag group of artists needs to get back to reality, whatever that is. I’d venture to guess that all of our individual realities have been forever shifted by what we’ve just done, the people we’ve met and the places we’ve seen. That’s the awesome thing about traveling abroad – you almost can’t help having your reality shifted, even a little bit, and no matter what you do with the rest of your life you’ll always take a little piece of that place, those people and those ideas with you. Once your horizon has been expanded, no one can shrink it back on you because you know what’s out there; you’ve seen it, heard it, smelled it, tasted it, touched it. And that’s one of the reasons why I love the MFA drama programs at Penn State, because in addition to some seriously awesome training, they believe in the importance—necessity, even—of education beyond the stage or studio. It’s as expensive as hell for them but they see the value in the investment, and I’m not blowing smoke up their butts when I say I feel forever indebted for the opportunity and hope someday to be able to contribute to ensure the opportunity exists in perpetuity.

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Lucky schmucks

The power of imagination

Grahamstown, SA

Before we left the United States, we ran two invited dress rehearsals at Penn State for staff, faculty and friends. The point of these early performances is always to learn about what you have in a piece of theatre: is the story clear? Do the actors understand the flow of the play (technically and artistically)? How does the audience respond? Which bits work and which don’t? Et cetera, et cetera. When we put it up in a rehearsal hall for the School’s Director and two other staff members, we were just hoping to get through it without someone falling down or doing something else similarly embarrassing, but based on what we heard later, that first run had gone pretty darn well. The next day was even stronger, as we were more confident and were playing to a larger, more diverse audience who engaged in a talkback with us after the play and so we got to see and hear firsthand what effect the piece had had on them. We heard from black students who thanked us through tears for telling this story, as it was one they hadn’t seen on a stage before and one they felt they had lived. Hearing that put pretty powerful wind in our sails as we packed the prop bag and headed for Africa.

The play itself came out of a series of workshops with the playwright, Dominique Morisseau, who came to Penn State a few times over the past year to get to know us and then to begin working through text she had written in her hotel room. It was exciting to come to work in the evenings knowing that Dominique had new pages to share with us or had rearranged or otherwise modified scenes based on what she’d heard the night before, but by the time we started rehearsals two weeks before getting on the plane to South Africa, she was off getting married to her boyfriend of more than 13 years. We were left, then, to our own creativity and ingenuity to really shape this brand new play about intolerance, perseverance and agency inspired by the United States’ very real racial divide as exposed by what happened in Jena, Louisiana, in 2006–7.

We knew we were going to be traveling quite a bit with this play and weren’t on a limitless budget, so we had to think as simply as possible as we created the piece. To that end, our entire set consists of six armless chairs and all of our props fit into a single duffel bag, and the receptions we’ve had in Bloemfontein and Johannesburg have only reinforced the power of creative storytelling and allowing/forcing an audience to use its imagination. What we find is that people aren’t called upon to use their imaginations nearly as often as they’d like to be, which is one of the reasons I believe theatre will never die.

Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying Hector Pieterson’s lifeless body in Soweto, June 16, 1976

The conversations we’ve had with audience members in Bloem and Joburg have been nothing short of staggering. First off, none of us knew that we were more or less arriving on South Africa’s 4th of July, which is June 16. That was the day in 1976 when a student demonstration started in the Soweto township outside of Johannesburg that set off a wave of anti-apartheid protests that never really died down until the government released Nelson Mandela from political prison in 1990 and he won the country’s first truly democratically elected presidency four years later. The students protesting were high school age, and they simply refused to be taught any longer in their oppressors’ language, Afrikaans, so they walked out into the streets. The crowd grew and grew until riot police were dispatched to stop the uprising; in the process, a 13-year-old boy, Hector Pieterson, was shot and killed by the police. A photograph of a classmate carrying his lifeless body spread around the world like wildfire, bringing much-needed international attention to the insanity of the apartheid system in South Africa, and so now June 16 is a national day of remembrance for those who fought and died to be free in their own country.

Our play deals with high school students having to make incredibly difficult decisions about how to stand up for their own rights, reputations and respect, and questions of race color the entire story. South Africans are still classified as white, black or colored, which in a nutshell means ‘of mixed race,’ and in the days of apartheid, the social (and legal) rank was white, colored, black. Students in Blood at the Root have to deal with internal and external identification issues, which has struck a chord with audiences here who struggle with racial classifications and everything they create (and have created for so long).

During one talkback in Bloemfontein we learned about how difficult it can be to talk about race onstage or in public in South Africa when one university student told us she had planned to perform something akin to Blood but at the last minute had been essentially shut down by her adviser and friends who persuaded her that the conversation she wanted to start was not in her—or anyone’s—best interest. She and others were amazed that we were able to bring this story to the stage with little-to-no friction at home. (Indeed, I’m not aware of a single person who has expressed doubt about the importance of this conversation, something I had taken for granted before landing here and talking with these people.)

What we’re interested in above all else, I think, is simply telling the truth. David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna) says that the only forum in America where you can hear the truth is the theatre, and I think there’s something to that. When you’ve convinced someone to take a minimum of two hours out of their lives to see a play—getting a babysitter, eating dinner early or late, getting to and from the theatre, to say nothing of watching the damn play—and to part with their hard-earned cash, you had better be up on that stage telling the goddamn truth or I wouldn’t blame that theatergoer to write off the entire art form as a waste of time fit only for intellectuals and self-congratulators. Now listen, I love to be entertained. In fact, I require to be entertained when I go to the theatre. If I’m not entertained, you’ve not done your job properly. I’m not going to sit there while you lecture me and lecture me poorly. Find some professor somewhere who wants to listen to you drone on, I’m not interested. Your job as an artist is to make me think about my own life and the world around me, and the only way I’m going to do that is if what you do is compelling. The truth, my friends, is compelling.

Prepping the many, many posters we hauled with us to put up around Grahamstown

Prepping the many, many posters we hauled with us to put up around Grahamstown

Tomorrow afternoon is our first performance at the South African National Arts Festival, and we’ve spent the past two and a half days canvassing the city with posters, talking to people on the street and in restaurants and passing out flyers with our information. We did a brief preview performance (the first few minutes of the show) in front of a crowd of between two and three hundred tonight, so hopefully we piqued someone’s interest there. This town has been positively overrun with artists and their shows; I just hope we’re able to compel people to come through our front door, stay, and then tell their friends that there’s something special happening with six American university students, six chairs, and a whole lot of imagination.

Sawubona

Johannesburg, SA

Please excuse the gushing, but my heart is full.

Somewhere between JFK and JNB

Somewhere between JFK and JNB

We’re through day five here in South Africa, and if the experience on days six through nineteen are anywhere near what we’ve felt so far, I may just miss the flight back to New York.

After what seemed like an interminable flight to Johannesburg (14 hours and 45 minutes!), we stumbled more or less deliriously onto the rather snazzy Gautrain (named for the Gauteng province, which means “Place of Gold” in the Sotho languages) link to the city center, where we walked around for a few hours before catching our bus to Blomefontein, the first stop on the tour.

Christian and Jo were gracious enough to volunteer to stay behind with our many bags so that the rest of us could check out the Market Theatre, the historic home of some of South Africa’s most important and influential playwrights and, astonishingly, where we’ll be performing Blood at the Root tomorrow night. (I should say that we’ll be at the Market’s Lab Theatre, not on their mainstage, but the thrill isn’t diminished in the least.)

Walking through this particular section of Johannesburg, I found myself in a state of wonder at the seemingly indefatigable entrepreneurial spirit that positively clogs the sidewalks here. It seems you have no excuse If your mobile phone is broken in this town; there’s a repair stall every sixty feet or so, and sometimes they’ll do you a pair of socks as well if need be (it so happened that Kenzie had great need for socks, as it’s winter here and she was in her northern hemispheric Toms). Fresh fruit, cooked food, bags, baskets, clothing (most of it from far, far away), bootleg CDs and DVDs… they went on and on.

On the streets of Johannesburg

On the streets of Johannesburg

Eventually we returned to the bus station to relieve Christian and Jo, grab our bags and use the restroom before boarding the bus to Bloem*. The bus ride was almost six hours, but it was easily the most comfortable motor coach I’d ever experienced. The seats reclined to 150° and included full-on leg rests, so sleeping was way easier than it was on the plane, but we were still absolutely wiped when we pulled into Bloem at around 9:30 (at that point we’d been traveling for 37 hours).

Charles called a van taxi to bring us to the hotel, so we loaded up all of our bags and headed to the guesthouse he had arranged a couple months ago for us, only to find out that four of the five rooms we’d reserved had been given away to people willing to pay more than we had, so after protracted periods of frustration we piled back into the van to find hotel #2, which had rooms, dodgy though they were. By this point we were on a first-name basis with the taxi driver, Cobus, and we asked him to come back in the morning so that we could move to yet another place for the final two nights in Bloem. He happily obliged and in that instant became our de-facto private driver for the next three days.

This man wound up driving us to and from the theatre at the Performing Arts Center of the Free States (PACOFS), where we played two shows (we were only aware of one performance until we arrived in the lobby and saw the poster for our show advertising two…), and when after our final performance we found ourselves on the receiving end of an extraordinarily kind invitation to dinner from a couple who work at the University of the Free States, Cobus drove us to the restaurant, told us to leave our bags in the van, and said he wouldn’t pick anyone up for the rest of the night and would instead wait for our call to come collect us from the restaurant. Now we’d all been warned up one side and down the other about criminal activity and personal safety in South Africa—including by the captain of our flight from New York, who, when we landed and were taxiing in, took such pride in welcoming us to “the most beautiful country in the world” but also said that he’d be remiss if he didn’t warn first-time visitors that the country’s security was not yet what they hoped it would someday be and so to be vigilant—so when Cobus insisted we could leave our stuff behind, I was a little weary. I was carrying about $3,000 worth of electronics because we use it for the show, and against my better judgment I walked into the restaurant sans backpack.

We ate, drank and carried on, eventually closing the place, and when we called Cobus to take us home, there he was, not ten minutes later, everything exactly as it had been. The guy was our hero. We never once worried about getting around Bloemfontein, and when it came time to make the trip back to Johannesburg, he asked how we were going back. We had planned to take the same motor coach line back, but he suggested that for a little more money he’d take us door-to-door and we’d get to stop at the Bagamoya Wildlife Estate, a wildlife reserve outside of Bloemfontein where we could have a late breakfast and see lions, tigers, cheetahs, gazelles, zebras, and on and on and on and on.

And so we loaded up the van this morning and set off. The nine of us and Cobus, this extraordinary man who had not only become our de-facto private driver but also our long-distance tour guide, went up into the hills high above Bloem to see an enormous statue of Nelson Mandela recently erected by the African National Congress and get one last view of the city before heading to the reserve. It was the kind of thing we’d never have gotten to do if we’d booked onto the bus to Joburg. A treat to be sure, but it only set the stage for the game reserve about an hour later.

The animals at Bagamoya are all hand-raised in the home by the estate’s owner, so they’re all about as tame as they could be. All of them look to be in peak condition (Charles was lamenting the state of some other game reserves he’s visited in the country where the same could not be said) and well fed, which was especially good for those of us who paid roughly $15 to spend a few minutes inside a pen with a Cheetah – as long as she’s full, we reckoned we didn’t hold much interest for her appetite. What an experience. The guide who took us in explained that cheetahs are one of the easiest animals to fully domesticate (or as fully as possible) and that if we were able to avoid making sudden movements we should be just fine, so there we were, petting a live cheetah and allowing her to lick our hands with her incredibly rough tongue, not really believing we were there at all.

This is Gabby. She's a cheetah.

This is Gabby. She’s a cheetah. I’m petting her.

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from the beautiful animals at Bagamoya to finish the drive back to Johannesburg, which we finished just after sunset. Fields of dry grasses were burning on either side of the motorway as we got nearer and nearer to the city—a process that is meant to help the soil—and the smell of the charred earth, combined with the light of the flames and the sodium lamps of the townships on the outskirts of town made for a pretty dramatic return for us. Cobus deposited us safely at our hotel and drove off, leaving us with priceless memories of some pretty spectacular places and the unending hospitality of the people of South Africa.

Cobus, Carter, Allison, Charles, Jo, Christian, Kenzie, me, Stori and Steve at the end of our incredible visit to the Bagamoya Wildlife Estate

Cobus, Carter, Allison, Charles, Jo, Christian, Kenzie, me, Stori and Steve at the end of our incredible visit to the Bagamoya Wildlife Estate

*Quick note to future travelers to South Africa: carry tissues or other soft paper and hand sanitizer with you at all times; you never know which bathrooms will supply these things and which won’t…

Meet and greet

We’re here and have been for some time, but Internet has been hard to come by and so I’ll be updating a bit on a delay but wanted to provide a brief introduction to the cast of characters you’re likely to be reading about. Here they are, in no particular order:

Steve Broadnax is the Head of Graduate Acting at Penn State and is the show's director

Steve Broadnax is the Head of Graduate Acting at Penn State and is the show’s director

Christian Thompson is the sole undergrad in the cast and on this trip. He's a Musical Theatre major and plays De'Andre

Christian Thompson is the sole undergrad in the cast and on this trip. He’s a Musical Theatre major and plays De’Andre

Charles Dumas is a professor at Penn State and the University of the Free States in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He is our producer here and is an invaluable source of just about everything

Charles Dumas is a professor at Penn State and the University of the Free States in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He is our producer here and is an invaluable source of just about everything

Stori Ayers is one of the five graduate actors and plays Raylynn

Stori Ayers is one of the five graduate actors and plays Raylynn

Allison Jaye is one of the graduate actors and plays Toria

Allison Jaye is one of the graduate actors and plays Toria

Brandon Carter is one of the five graduate actors and plays Justin

Brandon Carter is one of the five graduate actors and plays Justin

Kenzie Ross is one of the five graduate actors and plays Asha

Kenzie Ross is one of the five graduate actors and plays Asha

Jo Dumas is a professor at Penn State and is  Charles' wife. She is also an invaluable wealth of knowledge on matters South African and beyond

Jo Dumas is a professor at Penn State and is Charles’ wife. She is also an invaluable wealth of knowledge on matters South African and beyond

Back to Africa

I wrote an entry some time back about the wonder I felt at heading to Africa, noting how just saying the continent’s name evokes an otherness to me. Africa is the stuff of stories, photos, theme parks and documentaries, a kind of mystical place that exists primarily in the mind’s eye, not in any sort of known physical reality.

What I discovered four years ago is that Africa is just another place — a massive continent of countries as diverse as Egypt, Senegal and Congo, yes, but a place all the same. A place full of people who love their families and dream about the future, but mostly just go about their lives, putting one foot in front of the other the same way we all do, which brings the whole concept of the place to a human scale. The difficulty with a place like Africa is exactly that otherness I just mentioned. It puts people in the mind of something exotic, dangerous and mysterious, and while it can be all three, so can the United States if you take the right perspective.

The point of all of this is that tomorrow morning I’m getting on a plane in New York bound for Johannesburg, South Africa, with a group from Penn State that will be touring a new play by Dominique Morisseau called BLOOD AT THE ROOT. The play is inspired by the so-called “Jena Six,” a racially charged case that revolved around incidents at high school in Jena, Louisiana, in 2006-7. A day after three black students sat under a shade tree on campus that had traditionally been a hangout for only white students, three nooses were found hanging from that tree. From there, a tangled mess of events culminated in a fight on campus between six black students and one white student. The white student was beaten up pretty badly but was treated at a local hospital and released the same day. The black students, however, were charged with attempted murder. One, a 17-year-old, was convicted in an adult court (the ruling was later overturned), and the story went national. (NPR has a couple decent pieces on the case, All Eyes On Jena – Part I and Part II.) Our play does not follow those events precisely and doesn’t intend to represent actual individuals involved in the case; we’re exploring the larger themes of cyclical hate and violence in the context of what some call a post-racial United States.

We’ll perform the play in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Grahamstown, where we’ll have a week-long residence as part of the National Arts Festival, which I understand to be the second-largest arts festival in the world (Edinburgh is the largest). The trip will last three weeks in total, and I’m going to do my level best to update as we go.

Where we're headed and when. Click for larger version.

Where we’re headed and when. Click for larger version.