AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

New, Old South African Theater
Lily Saint | November 23rd, 2012

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In the “new South Africa … miracles leave us exactly where we began.” So says John, Julie’s servant, in Yael Farber’s play, Mies Julie, playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, suggesting that little has changed in South Africa since the end of apartheid despite its promises of freedom and equality. If John didn’t point out that the play takes place eighteen years since apartheid’s end, and if Strindberg’s original setting of the play on Midsummer Night hadn’t become South Africa’s Freedom Day in Farber’s rendition, you could easily mistake the play for being set during apartheid. And this is obviously Farber’s point. Perhaps this is why Benjamin Brantley in The New York Times thinks that the play “speaks boldly about that nation today.” But its recent success in Edinburgh and now in New York where its run has been extended, probably tells us more about the way that audiences in the Global North like to think about South Africa than it does about the actual dynamics of the place today.

What does white America do when there is no longer a place with worse race relations than the United States? Convince themselves that there still is, of course. The conclusions about interracial desire that the play draws allow audience members to shake their heads when they leave the play: How terrible it is in South Africa! What a shame nothing came of Mandela’s great promise! The irony, of course, in this election year, is palpable.

If you take the play as an example of current South African theater and literature more generally, you might think that nothing has changed there either. J.M. Coetzee’s 1977 novel, In the Heart of the Country revolves around a similar plot involving a lonely young white woman on a remote farm. But Coetzee’s novel made a lot more sense in the heart of apartheid than does Farber’s post-scriptum. From the angry but beautiful Boer woman who hurls epithets at her black servant—“once a kaffir always a kaffir”—to the groveling but muscular black servant who alternately calls Julie a “bitch,” and tells her he loves her, the action swings from one extreme cliché to the other, allowing for contradiction but not for subtlety. Farber’s stage directions only augment the play’s bipolar dialogue (she wrote as well as directed) resulting in exaggerated, near-parodic scenes in which the characters either stomp enraged around the stage, skip in joy, or violently slap one another about before the culminating sex scene which is as harried and high strung as the rest of the performance.

The whole thing looks exhausting. The actors do well under the circumstances, but fail to transcend the script’s shortcomings. When Mies Julie ends her life in a gratuitously violent and bloody act—in Strindberg’s original she walks off-stage with a razor—instead of being shocked as I suppose we were meant to feel, I simply groaned. Violent self-mutilation in response to having sex with a black man is not, thankfully, the response of most white South African women who do so. While suicide may have been the only recourse for an aristocratic woman with no property of her own who sleeps with her servant in late-nineteenth century Sweden, Farber’s rote application of Strindberg’s plot to contemporary South Africa suggests that what is needed are new narratives to better describe the country’s actual state of affairs, disappointments and all. While Mies Julie’s violence, anger, and sex, feed audience desires for the dramatic, a more responsible theater of the present might eschew such sensationalism, making room instead for depictions of the history, love, and sex of everyday relations.

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Lily Saint

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2 thoughts on “New, Old South African Theater

  1. Thanks for this review, Lily. Surely we don’t need to vacillate between Coetzee’s Disgrace-version of what lies ahead for ‘interracial’ (and really, inter-class) desire (where one accepts a weird, exploitative/submissive relationship borne of necessity – some with teeth gritted, and others in meditative, self-dissolved calm) and this version – driven to extinguishing self because of the horror, the horror. giggling as I type this.

  2. I have to say I have only been to South Africa once and for a short time and the impression I got is that race relations may have improved but maybe not very much since apartheid. There is a lot of anger among races especially with the whole Black Empowerment movement. I actually, felt quite uncomfortable interacting with people, I have lived in the US for awhile now and never felt any tension interacting with persons of any race.
    Also, with the empowerment going on, I think a lot has changed since apartheid, and in any capitalist economy not everyone he is going to “win” because stuff (to speak colloquially) cannot be taken from one set of people and given to another- capitalism doesn’t work that way.

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