Sunday, April 27, 2008

Anomalous crew members

I've seen two very good plays in the last couple weeks, quite different from each other but a reminder of what can be done in the theatre. I am too lazy to write proper descriptions, but fortunately for me, Alexis Soloski has reviewed both at TEWTSNBN, so I will just link to hers!

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead was a collaborative effort of South Africans John Kani, Winston Nshtona and Athol Fugard, first produced in 1972--Kani and Nshtona were the piece's original performers, and have now performed it for the last time in this run at BAM. A good but not great piece of theater, I would say, forceful in certain respects more because of history than because of true theatrical magic--but the writing is quite lovely, funny and smart and quite painful, and both actors' performances were extraordinarily good.

I rather loved Jay Scheib's Untitled Mars. Philip K. Dick, clever use of footage live and canned (some hilarious interviews with the colonization-of-Mars guys, and an altogether delightful MIT engineer live on screen answering the director's questions), imaginative set and lighting, strikingly good acting: most of all, I found the whole show very funny and smart (it shares this with the otherwise quite different Sizwe Banzi) in perhaps the way I most enjoy (highbrow-lowbrow amalgam, with not a hint of pretension).

I mentioned to my mother that I'd seen the South African play, and it spurred some remiscences on her part which she has generously written down for me to post here:
When I heard that Athol Fugard and "Siswe Banzi" were going to be in Princeton it was an enormous excitement because he and his writings were so revered by the group of students I belonged with as a teenager [in London]. Lured by a pair of friends, I used to spend Friday evenings hanging out at the Partisan coffee bar in Soho Square from about 1959 on; that was the evening that a body called the London Schools Left Club used to meet, to engage with left wing speakers, writers and politicians who would debate topics with us and inspire us to socialist passions. South Africa and the policy of apartheid was a frequent topic, and Fugard was a name to reckon with. From high school to undergraduate years a number of us would join the weekly demonstration that would take place on Saturday afternoons outside South Africa House, which is on the south-east side of Trafalgar Square. We formed a silent vigil, protesting apartheid and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. I wrestled with my conservative parents about all matters South African--begging my father not to buy South African sherry, and my mother to give up her favorite apricot preserves, which came in a 2 lb. tin from South Africa. I didn't get far. Curiously I was relatively uninformed about the simultaneous struggle for civil rights in this country; there can't have been much in the way of reporting on it, at least not in the paper my parents took, or I would surely have seized upon it and devoured it. (Banning the bomb was an equal passion, and the Aldermaston marches were another important issue for us at the time.)

Anyway, friends [in Philadelphia] were buying tickets to see "Siswe Banze" and it was a total thrill to go to see it. The two actors were utterly memorable. I feel that Fugard was there, but this may be a figment of my imagination as it is equally possible that he was banned from traveling and that my sight of him was at some later event. It was like taking actual part in something you have dreamed about, seeing the work of this amazing writer and thinker alive in the room with us. Of course we knew that this play could never be performed in South Africa, and the notion of banned artistic material was very important to us old Left Club hangers-on as so many of our not too distant ancestors had been banned from publishing, writing, acting or music-making by the Nazis not so many years before.

It was during my first year as a graduate student in Philadelphia that Dr. King was assassinated, and as I look back I am shocked at how little I then knew about his life and work. My whole sensitivity to civil rights seems to have been formed by the South African experience - surely a quirky result of all that colonialism I grew up with!
Light reading around the edges of a rather busy and stressful stretch of the school year: Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Princess Ben and Marisa de los Santos's Belong to Me, a sequel to Love Walked In.

Murdock and de los Santos have a certain amount in common as writers: they are both very gifted language users with a sensitivity to the warmest and most painful aspects of human existence. (I especially recommend Murdock's wonderful pair of novels Dairy Queen and The Off Season.) I have, I think, offended more than one writer by my use of the phrase light reading to cover their literary productions, but really it is one of my highest compliments. The only thing I privately think is that many good novels might be even better if they had vampires in them also! For instance, Marisa de los Santos uses these very fully rendered Philadelphia settings, and her characters are extraordinarily vivid and attractive--but where are the vampires and/or animal shape-shifters?!? I always feel very disoriented when I read a novel like this one that is just about husbands and wives and children and families, I feel it is somehow not really the universe I mentally inhabit! Though each of the characters in the novel seems to have a mental and emotional life that feels very much like my own... Highly recommended!


  1. For you it's vampires; for me, it's zombies.

  2. "The only thing I privately think is that many good novels might be even better if they had vampires in them also!"

    I think this qualifies as quote of the week.

    But so true.