“The record of thoughtful play becomes a play”
Fred Moten, 2021. All Incomplete
“Now, the story can begin. / Hear this: you proud, you wounded, you short of breath, you blinded by tears, you with a foot upon your back. / We do not wish to tell the story of an African tragedy / Nor a tale of suffering / of sealed fate / of pain that ceases to ache. / yes, there are dark clouds to move through / there is wind and rain ahead / but do not look away, for – see, there / in the distance / a stitching together / a mending of things torn / and hope, uncoiling and blooming as aloes do. / Let the memories come now / Let them come flooding back”
Amy Louise Wilson, 2019. Another Kind of Dying
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about memory and forgetting. I’m replaying scenes from before this nightmare began, trying to recall how life was before and imagine how it might be afterwards. Everything is shifting so fast; the ground beneath our feet is unstable; the landscape beyond the horizon unknowable. More than anything else, I’ve turned to the internet for comfort and escape over the past year. Often, it’s been a place of terror – an endless scroll of death and infection statistics. But it’s also been a portal – a place to access the experiences of others; to find connection and to submerge myself in art (both high and low).
I believe the internet can be a space of care, rather than a space that drains us of our power. It is in this spirit that I began to think about how to make a work of performance that can find a comfortable place in the internet landscape. In 2019, I wrote a play called Another Kind of Dying. It’s the story of a young man from the rural Eastern Cape who moves to Johannesburg after the death of his father, moving between memory, dream and experience as he grapples with his new reality. This is not a new story. It is part of a broad canon of South African literature and art often described as the ‘Jim Comes to Joburg’ genre which takes its name from the eponymous 1940s film, and came to reference works that dealt with the rural Black man’s encounter with the white-controlled industrial city. Many of the seminal texts of the genre are written by white authors, including Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and William Plomer’s Ula Masondo, and follow a similar storyline – an innocent rural man moves from peaceful, pastoral life to big, dangerous city and is corrupted by booze, women, the mines etc. The novel Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams (1946), described as the first African novel written in English to attract international attention, was one of the first works in this genre in which the protagonist takes his destiny into his own hands. The book challenges the stereotypes and institutions that discriminate against working-class Black South Africans and was a strong influence on my own writing.
When I was named winner of the 2020 Distell National Playwrighting Competition, I immediately entered into discussions with the National Arts Festival where the play was set to premiere, before touring the major theatres across the country. I’ll skip the part where the pandemic shatters all plans and dreams, and jump ahead to May 2021 – about a year later. Theatre (as we knew it), already a fragile ecosystem in our country, has all but disappeared. It’s tempting to lament this and dwell in a quagmire of loss and nostalgia. But there isn’t time. The work of artists, now, is urgent. We have to find ways to connect, share stories and make sense of the absolute fucked-ness of this moment. As artists, we’re tasked with thinking about how we connect with our work – particularly ‘live’, ‘presence-dependent’ media – and our audiences.
The name for the new work, AnotherKind, comes from the original title of the play, but also gestures towards how we are reaching for another kind of process – a meeting of text fragments, recorded rehearsals and performances, and sound experiments which challenge the formal limits of live collaboration and theatrical experience. For six weeks, a rotating group of (masked) artists from a variety of disciplines worked together in a (well-ventilated) creative lab, piecing together an experimental process that moved between theatre rehearsals, video-making, live sound-scape creation and handmade collage to visualise moments, scenes and images from the story. Aphiwe Livi performed the role of the central character, alongside a cast of performers which includes Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, Buhle Ngaba, Babalwa Makwetu and Thembekile Komani. Francois Knoetze art directed, created miniature set pieces and made the video works. Theatre-maker Joanna Evans worked with performance and co-creatively directed. Sound artist Gugulethu Duma AKA Dumama created original sound compositions; Duduetsang Lamola AKA blk banaana made handmade and digital collages, Zara Julius & Konjo curated a playlist and artist Francis Burger designed the online archive.
The new work both builds upon and breaks apart the original script across a series of short video, performance and sound pieces. This approach aimed to carefully document this process, intending to create an online archive where viewers could get an intimate view into this playful, political and poetic collaboration. We wanted to engineer an experiment to see what the encounter of performance and the archive in the present pandemic moment could yield. It might sound like an oxymoron – a performance archive and scholarship has put “the recorded” and “the live” in which the archive was positioned in opposition to performance, or the archive against embodied performance. Carlos Celdrán noted in his 2019 message for World Theatre Day,
Nothing survives except data or records of their work in videos and photos that will only capture a pale idea of what [theatrical creators] did. However, what will always be missing from those records is the silent response by the public who understands in an instant that what takes place cannot be translated or found outside, that the truth shared there is an experience of life, for a few seconds, even more diaphanous than life itself.
I want to challenge this idea of the archive as something that exists in a distant past, rather, understanding it as something that can be living, porous and flexible. Thinking of the archive like this can be a kind of memory practice against the ‘ritual of forgetting’ (Mbembe 2002); a practice that exists somewhere between the performance and the documentation thereof. In “Ephemera as Evidence,” José Muñoz presents a different way to grapple with performance’s ephemerality. He points out that a large part of cultural production is located outside of what is material and immediately available to experience. His resistance to accepting performance disappearance as loss points towards a beautiful possibility for its distinctly visible residues. Our process was messy, D.I.Y and improvisational. We tried things and made some mistakes. As Saidiya Hartman would say, it meant an “embrace of likely failure and the readiness to accept the ongoing, unfinished and provisional character of this effort”. We discovered the story by making it. The emphasis was on the journey, rather than the destination. And we left some avenues undiscovered; some questions unanswered. What we created isn’t a complete, whole archive of this process. Fred Moten gestures to this in his new book All Incomplete, which argues against ‘wholeness’ or a ‘final product’. He motions to incompleteness as a radicalisation of process – process, as opposed to a product, which “has a value that can be measured”.
There is a magic to the fragile temporality of live performance that many of us miss – the unrepeatable moment between audience and artist that exists and then is suddenly gone. But there must be another kind of way to make and experience art. After all, unusual times must necessarily produce unusual archives.
Please enjoy the archive here. Scroll with care.