My Word! Redesigning Buckingham Palace, is a one-man play, written by Sylvia Vollenhoven and performed by co-writer and actor, Basil Appollis. It is based on the life and work of the writer, Richard Rive, who grew up in District Six and wrote about the community and it’s characters such as Mary Bruintjies, who ran a brothel next door; Zoot, the local gangster; and Mr. Katzen, the landlord of the row of houses that came to be known fondly as ‘Buckingham Palace’. The play portrays Rive on the eve of his death, reminiscing about the people and places of District Six before the forced removals of the 1970s.
The play has has just returned from the South African season at the Jermyn Street Theater in London with high praise from critics. The theatre showcased five-weeks of South African performances in celebration of 20 years of democracy.
District Six was one of the first non-racial communities in the heart of the city of Cape Town. In the 1970s, the apartheid government declared it a white area under the Group Areas Act (1957) and forcibly removed residents before bulldozing down their homes. Many were sent to live on the outskirts of the city. “District Six was the start of a really vibrant, none racial South African and that’s why it had to die,” says playwright Sylvia Vollenhoven.
Vollenhoven has a personal connection to Rive. He was her high school teacher in the 60s. “Whenever we had a double period he would say, okay now lets have Latin history, or Roman history, and that was code speak for telling us the real history of South Africa and reading from his books, all of which were banned at the time,” she says. “I learned more from those clandestine lessons that I did in any library or any other regular lesson.”
As a writer and journalist, Vollenhoven strives to keep the memory of Rive and other black writers alive, especially those who survived the banning of the apartheid state, or continued writing despite it. “Where do we find ourselves in the history of South Africa? Can we locate ourselves? If we can’t locate ourselves in the books and libraries and archives we have to manufacture that history, write the books and the plays and redress that absence,” says Vollenhoven.
* The play is currently showing at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in South Africa until 12 July. Image Credit: Publicity still