posted in: School life | 0

The Grade 10 and 11 learners’ trip to see the Market Theatre’s production of Sophiatown was not without its organisational problems, with the school reluctant to shell out the money in advance; I had to field a series of increasingly frantic emails from the theatre’s marketing manager.  Fortunately, we were able to send it in (the nick of) time, and at 10 am on Friday morning, 27 learners, plus Val, me, and Mrs Nolo Lange, an English teacher at the school, set off for the 11 o’clock schools’ matinee.

It was a packed auditorium, the audience in a riot of different coloured school uniforms (plus one set of white students in civvies.)  The production, yet another South African classic, regularly revived, was superb.  It was a musical depicting one household in the lively Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown in the 50s, and showed their eviction as part of a mass relocation and demolition in the early days of apartheid. The songs – a tribute to the music of the period – were terrific, and the performances sharply comic.

Our learners’ behaviour was exemplary, and their reaction very positive (though some preferred the school production we had mounted a couple of years ago.)  We raced back – courtesy of school bus-driver and legend Francis – and arrived just in time for school finish and my rehearsal.  A success!

Reflections VIII – Words

posted in: Life in South Africa | 0

Some of the phrases in common use here are so well-known as to be the clichés spouted by the recorded voice on the open-air bus tour.  The variations of “now”, “just now” and “now now” are  examples of this, but remain true all the same, not least because they reveal the (extremely) relaxed attitude South Africa takes towards time.

There are also Afrikaans words that have become a part of the language of all here, black and white, English-speaking as well as Afrikaans.  A barbecue is always a braai (with its own aisle in supermarkets); a bakkie is a pick-up truck, pap is maize porridge. One of our friends at home had assumed that Afrikaans as a language was dying out, but this is absolutely not the case, and for a large part of the population it is their everyday language: living, working, and for many much-treasured. Many of the learners choose to take Afrikaans classes in school, as it can open doors for example, in certain lines of work.

Other words are less commented-upon, “Shame” being one such.  It is a sort of abbreviation of “What a shame” but has less of that expression’s mild horror, and more a twinkle of complicity and humour.  You hear it a lot.

Even more universal is the pairing of greeting and enquiry after one’s well-being, together with an expectation that you will use the same – “GoodmorninghowareyouImfinethankyou” – that makes one feel guilty at not having got one’s own enquiry in fast enough.

Finally, on the subject of words, a new addition to our blog-site (on the suggestion of Val’s brother Pete): a collection of talking head monologues, each lasting thirty seconds, in which young South Africans talk about anything they want.  It is called “Half a minute” and the link can be found on the home page.

Baby please don’t go…

posted in: Production | 0

I have already commented on the connections between our African stories and their Western equivalents.  The first play, Anansi, is the only example of a direct descent, however.  Unsurprisingly, it was the African story which came first.

The stories of Anansi the trickster spider traveled with the slave ships to America, where he became translated into Brer Rabbit, with the Gum baby of the original becoming the Tar baby. The video clip shows this scene in rehearsal.  Fortunately, Lucky’s eye for detail and movement contributes hugely to its staging.  Annoyingly timetabling problems, plus the fact that he is just so busy, don’t allow him to be with us full-time!  No matter, I’m very pleased with any time he can give.


Lessons as usual – Antigone

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Practical drama work in South Africa follows the same pattern as in England, pretty much a 50/50 split between scripted and improvised/devised work.  The video shows an example of the former, an extract from one of the Grade ten set works: Antigone by Sophocles.

You might have thought that Greek theatre was about as far removed from black African experience as you could get, but Camo makes Creon’s speech into something modern and relevant. To my mind, quite extraordinary.

I don’t think the learners here find the memorising of lines any easier than their English counterparts do, but they put the work in, and that gives them the freedom to act, not read.  As you can see.

Lessons as usual – warming-up

posted in: School life | 1

It occurs to me that one area of school life that I have not covered at all in this blog is the one that, since Viloshni went into hospital, takes up the majority of my time, i.e. lessons.  So, to begin with: warming-up.

It will not surprise any of you who have had any experience of me as a teacher that I have lost no time at all in introducing my absolute favourite warm-up activity: the game of zip, zap, boing. For the uninitiated, it is a fast and furious game requiring energy, commitment and lightning-fast reactions.  Its purpose is to instil energy into the listless; basically, waking people up. (There is a version which seeks to pretend that what is being passed around the circle is a ball of energy, but I think that is pretentious nonsense; my belief is that the major motivation is competitive, i.e. not getting out.)

What has come as a big surprise to me is the enthusiasm that has infected both the classes I teach that are big enough to play it.  I have never come across classes who have taken to it with such a spirit, and I have taught it to lots and lots of people (actually, quite a lot of you out there.)

Open with a bang

posted in: Production | 2

I had always intended for the play to start with a lone figure entering from the back, singing a lullaby, as a way of capturing the audience’s attention, but as yet we had not had the opportunity to select a singer, song, etc.  So a suitable candidate was plucked from the chorus and the song was chosen for her.  Ndiivhuwo immediately took her place and walked forward, singing beautifully, alone and unaccompanied, in front of the entire assembled company; I would never have found someone with that level of confidence in England.

But then we needed to open with a bang, and we arranged for that song to be interrupted by the entire cast bursting in from all four corners of the theatre in a wildly cacophonous explosion of noise and energy.  Luckily (pun fully intended) Lucky was available to co-ordinate, orchestrate, and choreograph the whole business.  The trick was to appear to have wild anarchy, while actually having a rigid skeleton of self-discipline to hold it together.  It certainly wasn’t polished perfection, but the structure is there, and it has the impact I was after.

The storyteller of the first story brings that opening to a close, and commences the play proper.  It was, I promise you, genuine serendipity that that storyteller was Ndivhuwo.  Just lucky, I guess.


Reflections VII – Culture clash

posted in: Life in South Africa | 0

Taking advantage of a long weekend – Human Rights Day – we headed into Kwa-Zulu Natal and the town of Dundee, an excellent base to explore the battlefields of the Anglo-Zulu and Boer Wars – we took a guided tour of Isandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift (for those of a certain age, think “Zulu” with Michael Caine.) Our guide, Pat Rondgren, gave an excellent insight to battle strategy (and stupidity), but also into Zulu culture.

The Zulu were raiders, with no concept of borders and the ownership of land, and had little interest in things that were anchored. There are monuments to both sides  – the photo is of a monument to the Zulu fallen at Rorke’s Drift, a statue of a leopard on hide shields – but it is largely for the benefit of (white) visitors.  The Zulu see far greater point to the tree planted alongside, which provides shade and sustenance.

Western virtues do not sit easily with Zulu culture. We value punctuality (the politeness of kings), making eye contact upon meeting, even the idea of ladies first when entering a room (it is the duty of the Zulu man to enter first to ensure no danger lurks within). And, knowing this, I have had cause to question my own teaching.  Am I being stubbornly dogmatic (and racist) in demanding that the learners in my class “listen with their eyes”?  Should I continue to insist upon the learners arriving on time for lessons and rehearsals, and getting down to work straight away?  (That is certainly something the school insists upon.)  Or is it patronising (and racist) to make allowances for a different approach, when they will have to make their way in the modern world.  No straightforward answer, I fear.

The crying game

posted in: Production | 0

Nokuthule was drafted today as the poor little cripple girl (European equivalent: the little match girl – the connections just keep happening.)  She is a late replacement, after I tired of people not turning up for rehearsals, and re-cast from the four who did.  There may be trouble ahead (as Fred Astaire used to say) from a disgruntled cast, but I’ll just have to face the music.*

She appears in The Tree, one of the three plays which rehearsed today.  The other two were The Three Sons, under the direction of Val, and Soup, directed by… themselves!  (Fortunately, that is something they are good at here.)  All groups were (reasonably) satisfied with their progress, but of course we are many steps behind where we ought to be.  As I frequently remark, nothing new there then.

(* – and dance?)

Football crazy, football mad

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We’ve mentioned before that the lawn right outside our window is frequently used as a rehearsal space, chiefly by the choir.  The downside is that it is used even more regularly as an inpromptu football pitch, every night after dinner, and as such it is far louder than the choir.  Not exactly two jumpers for goalposts, as the goals are a single dustbin at each end, which does make for an interesting variety of tactics.

Football is also played every break in the playground by the learners, as well as, just down the road on a scrappy piece of wasteland, local youngsters.  In both venues the players exhibit a good deal of skill, and here (and no doubt there) many have the ambition of playing professionally; the chances are, of course, virtually zero.

Naturally, with the globalisation of the beautiful game, most people here have two teams: one South African, one Manchester United.  I regularly try to suggest that there are alternatives, and have many conversations about the merits of other teams… well, one other team.  I also possess a Kaiser Chiefs shirt, which provokes much excitement, but just a hint of disappointment when I confess that my interest is more in the rock band of that name than the team.

Reflections VI – Mallingering

posted in: Life in South Africa | 0

Shopping malls are very big in South Africa, both literally and figuratively. For some sections of the population, they are truly the only place to shop. And that is all kinds of shopping: fashion and homeware as well as the weekly food shop, as they are home to all the major supermarkets, from (curiously) Woolworths at the luxury end down to Pick’n Pay at the budget. Apart from in the malls, there are plenty of other shops which call themselves supermarkets – eight on the short trip to our local swimming pool, along run-down Jules Street – but they are what we would call corner shops, and fairly wretched ones at that, with food on pallets and a lockable gate at the door; that is where the majority of the poorer black population does its shopping.

There are black people in the malls, but apart from the relatively small (though growing) black middle class, they tend to be the people working there – shop assistants, waiting staff, security guards.

Malls are also leisure venues, containing cinemas and private gyms. Most have an area open to the sky, with a children’s play area fringed by restaurants of all kinds – Italian, Indian, Mexican, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese… all staffed by black people. There will frequently be a hotel attached, and along with the other Stowe teachers who came last February, it was in one of these that I was booked. Apart from when we were in a car or inside the school gates, the mall was pretty much the only place we saw.

For mall goers, there is no concept of walking to the shops – it’s always a drive. The trick is to work out which multi-storey car parks gets you closest to your preferred shopping destination. And after transporting your purchases to your car, staff tether together huge trains of trolleys and return them to their respective stores, often maneuvering them by hand, sometimes using golf buggies or small tractors.

Note – this will be our last posting for a few days. We are taking advantage of the school being closed for a long weekend to visit the South African battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal (or KZN as it’s known here), so the blog will be on holiday too. More news upon our return.