Fighting apartheid Tooth and Nail
South African work on the Durham Theater stage probes the challenges and ambiguities of reconstruction
| 04 November 2004
A regime collapses. A tyrant is toppled. After the jubilation, what comes next?
Fifteen years ago, just months before F.W. de Klerk pronounced the death of the Afrikaaners’ dream and Nelson Mandela walked out of prison a free man, a black South African actor playing a house servant spoke — or, rather, sang — of the coming post-apartheid era to his white mistress: “In the bitter times between the old and the new, we lived…. In the bitter times between the old and the new, still they claimed, the flowers grew.”
(Weiferd Watts photo)
Seventeen student actors make up the cast, along with three large puppets created by Heather Crow. Direction is provided by Laura Levin, who was involved in a 1997 staging of Tooth and Nail in Montreal. Together, the two Ph.D. students proposed the work for production at Berkeley — in part to engage a diverse cast and to support the department’s growing interest in non-Western theater traditions.
The play conjures the specter of apartheid and its aftermath through a whirlwind series of some 90 fragments — some narrative, others charged visual images of the sort seen recently on the San Francisco stage in an acclaimed production of The Black Rider, directed by Robert Wilson. The similarities are more than coincidental: the Junction Avenue ensemble — which grew up with and often lent its talents to the anti-apartheid movement — created Tooth and Nail soon after an international tour that exposed members to the avant-garde work of director Wilson and choreographer Pina Bausch, both of whom were experimenting with highly visual, expressionistic performance styles. By incorporating these influences into its next work, Junction Avenue found expression for the ambiguities of reconstruction — and drew criticism from those who expected politically engaged artists to deliver a more transparent message.
(Weiferd Watts photo)
She says the meaning of play has changed a lot for her since the Montreal production. “When you’re performing it in 1997, that’s very soon after the end of apartheid, and only three years after their first elections [under the new government],” she says. Under those conditions, Tooth and Nail reads as a play about resistance — “a wonderful expression of the triumph of individuals in oppressive situations.” In 2004, “other parts start resonating — questions about what happens when an oppressive regime falls and you have to deal with what the Junction company calls the ‘morbid symptoms’” in the aftermath. Who’s in the new government? Are they selling out? How can you heal from and reconcile atrocities committed? How do you transform social relationships created by apartheid, when they are all that people have known for generations? What is the role of art?
The theme of reconstruction is evident in all aspects of the Berkeley production. The set, created by faculty member Richard Olmsted, is reminiscent of the urban blight of Rent, with raw beams, corrugated metal, and graffiti. The cast produces live sound, designed by student Matthew Cowell, on buckets, garbage cans, metal walls, and pipes. Crow’s puppets appear crumbling, deteriorated, with inner parts exposed, as if constructed out of “bits and pieces of sculptures that had fallen into disrepair,” as she puts it.
One, a seven-foot-high Noah, is controlled by three puppeteers in full view of the audience — a technique developed by Handspring Puppet Company, a South African troupe whose work has been a strong influence on Crow’s ideas about puppetry (along with that of Julie Taymor, designer of the extravagant jungle creatures in the Broadway version of The Lion King). Postmodern in its exposure of the mechanisms of creation, the visual manipulation of the puppets also meshes well, in Tooth and Nail, with the various forms of domination and manipulation that still distort social relationships in the aftermath of apartheid.
Another puppet, Second Saul, plays alter ego to a human character named Saul, a photographer who observes the entire action of the play, torn between the creation of beauty or service to the revolution as the ultimate goal of his art. A third, The Lost Spirit, embodies all those who perished as Noah set off in his Ark with just two of every kind — and as the Afrikaaners pursued the colonial mythology of a purified race.
Human actors play out other archetypal post-apartheid relationships — such as a love triangle between Letitia (a white woman whose way of dealing with the transition is to enjoy every pleasure of the moment) and two men — one black, one white, both members of South Africa’s emerging yuppie class.
“There’s been a lot of dramaturgical conversation in rehearsal about the meaning of certain lines. It’s a big leap,” says Levin, for student actors to master pronunciation of words in Afrikaans, Sotho, and Zulu, and even bigger to think through “morbid symptoms” of a complex and uncertain time in a distant place.
Tooth and Nail runs from Nov. 12 to 21.
Malcolm Purkey, one of the founding members of Junction Avenue Theatre Company and the newly appointed artistic director of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, will be on campus from Nov. 17 to 19. He will give a talk on the South African theater in post-apartheid democracy at 4 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 18, in Durham Studio Theater and will participate in a discussion about the play following the Friday, Nov. 19, performance. These auxiliary events are supported by the Townsend Center and the UC Berkeley Consortium for the Arts. For information on tickets and showtimes, visit theater.berkeley.edu or call 642-9925.