Saturday, 5 April 2014

You must see to it that you are wearing a mask of smiles: Reading Athol Fugard

I presume many must also have seen Athol Fugard (1932) before they read him. Before I knew he was a South African stage director and playwright, I knew that he was an actor with small roles in movies like Gandhi and The Killing Fields; the former I don’t particularly love, the latter is a special favourite of mine, not because of Fugard though. This year I pledged to read more plays, and Fugard was on my list of playwrights. For reasons I no longer remember I became curious to read his stage work, so I bought Statements, a collection of plays: Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act (a funny piece of trivia: Ben Kingsley was in the play’s original cast) The Island and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead. None impressed itself upon my mind as strongly as the last one.

Fugard in Gandhi

Sizwe Bansi is Dead was first performed in Cape Town in 1972. It was a collaborative work with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, both of whom, I’m happy to say, shared a Tony Award in 1975 for their leading performances when this play and The Island debuted in Broadway. These plays came about when Fugard started working with the Serpent Players company and during a period when he was looking for a way of freeing himself from the conventions of the medium. After improvising with actors and discovering the techniques Polish author Jerzy Grotowski (1933 – 1999) developed in the book Towards a Poor Theatre, Fugard started creating collaborative plays that began as episodes or scenes and which he allowed his actors to expand upon until they had something valuable. Fugard pared down his theatre to its essentials: the actors and the stage, to allow a purer connection with the audience. Since Fugard was also creating protest theatre and the South African government was not going to subsidize it, this was also a solution for their lack of resources.

Although there are two characters in Sizwe Bansi is Dead, the play is almost two monologues, one by a photographer called Styles and the second by a man called Robert Zwelinzima in need of a photo for his passbook, a document that every black man must carry with him. Inside Robert’s monologue, which is actually a reminiscence, there is also a dialogue between him and Buntu (played by the actor who plays Styles). The change from Styles to Robert is a change from comedy to tragedy. Styles represents the veiled contempt of blacks for the Afrikaans, whereas Robert’s life shows the dehumanizing effects of Apartheid.
John Kani
Styles has a jocose spirit, but he’s also fearful. As the play opens he sits in his studio waiting for clients and reading the newspaper, commenting and opining sarcastically on the news: China, American foreign policy, Nixon, the economy. He seems amused to be dispensing his views, but it’s not all as bright as it seems. “‘China: a question mark on South West Africa.’ What’s China want there? Yo! They better be careful. China gets in there…! I’ll tell you what happens…” But he “looks around as if someone might be eavesdropping” and concludes, “No comment.” Styles is a black man who has achieved some safety in life, he has his own business, still he knows his freedom is not total.

The news about the economy make him remember a day when he worked at a Ford car factory, during a visit from a hotshot from “America or London” to check the factory. A fortunate event, for Styles. “When a big man like that visited the plant there was usually a few cents more in the pay-packet at the end of the week.” Styles has some education, since he translated Afrikaans for his workmates, but his mordant humour used the occasions to ridicule the bosses’ speeches:

‘Style, tell the boys that when Mr. Henry Ford comes into the plant I want them all to look happy. We will slow down the speed of the line so that they can sing and smile while they are working.’
‘Gentlemen, he says that when the door opens and his grandmother walks in you must see to it that you are wearing a mask of smiles. Hide your true feelings, brothers. You must sing. The joyous songs of the days of old before we had fools like this one next to me to worry about.’ Yes, sir!

Through Styles’ subversive, sardonic wit the reader peels away the falseness enveloping the interracial relationships and social dynamics of South African society. He’s also perceptive and introspective, enough to know he has no control over his life:

 ‘Come on, Styles, you’re a monkey, man, and you know it. Run up and down the whole bloody day! Your life doesn’t belong to you. You’ve sold it. for what, Styles? Gold wrist-watch in twenty-five years time when they sign you off because you’re too old for anything any more?’
I was right. I took a good look at my life. What did I see? A bloody circus monkey! Selling most of his time on this earth to another man. Out of every twenty-four hours I could only properly call mine the six when I was sleeping. What the hell is the use of that?

So Styles turns his photographic hobby into a full-time profession, but not without receiving scorn from his own family:

My father was the worst.
‘You call that work? Click-click with a camera. Are you mad?’
I tried to explain. ‘Daddy, if I could stand on my own two feet and not be somebody else’s tool, I’d have some respect for myself. I’d be a man.’
‘What do you mean? Aren’t you one already? You’re circumcised, you’ve got a wife…’
Talk about the generational gap!

Perhaps this gap is also mental: For the father his status as a man is adhering to certain rites: circumcision, marriage. Styles is talking about something more profound: dignity, self-love, not working for the Afrikaners. Later on he tells a story about his father to better explain what separates them:

Fought in the war. Second World War. Fought at Tobruk. In Egypt. He fought in France so that his country and all the others should stay Free. When he came back they stripped him at the docks – his gun, his uniform, the dignity they’d allowed him for a few mad years because the world needed men to fight and be ready to sacrifice themselves for something called Freedom. In return they let him keep his scoff-tin and gave him a bicycle. Size twenty-eight. I remember, because it was too big for me. When he died, in a rotten old suitcase amongst some of his old rags, I found that photograph. That’s all. That’s all I have from him.

This is already tragic enough, and we haven’t even started Robert’s story. If Styles’ father is an instance of a man who accepted the regime perhaps because he knew no other horizons, Robert is a man aware of its injustice like Styles, but he’s bureaucratically linked to that system of injustice. He comes to Style’s shop for a new photograph. During his flashback we learn that he hides with a man called Buntu. We also learn that his real name is Sizwe Bansi, that his wife is called Nowetu, that she’s living in King William’s Town, that he’s moved to Port Elisabeth, and that he doesn’t have the necessary papers to stay there.
Winston Ntshona
Sizwe Bansi ran away from his area to find a job in Port Elisabeth. The problem is that Influx Control is after him, and he doesn’t have a worker’s permit. He’s been captured and ordered to return to his area. As a black South African, his life is meticulously controlled through a passbook with a Native Identity number. Buntu at first advises him to ask for work at the mines, since the work is so hard there that they’re always in demand of new workers and don’t worry about papers being in order. But it’s also a suicidal job, and Sizwe Bansi wants to live of course.

Then it happens that Buntu and Sizwe Bansi find a corpse. That in itself is of no importance, he was a black man so nobody cares. But rummaging in his pockets they find a work-seeker’s permit for Port Elisabeth; for Buntu his friend’s problem is solved: all he has to do is take the dead man’s identity and then he can call his wife to be with him:

Take this book and read it carefully, friend, and tell me what it says about me. Buntu, does that book tell you I’m a man? That bloody book…! People, do you know? No! Wherever you go… it’s that bloody book. You go to school, it goes too. Go to work, it goes too. Go to church and pray and sing lovely hymns, it sits there with you. Go to hospital to die, it lies there too!

Sizwe Bansi is not very eager to lose his identity and become somebody else. A mere trifle for the pragmatic Buntu:

When the white man looked at you at the Labour Bureau what did he see? A man with dignity or a bloody passbook with an N.I. number? Isn’t that a ghost? When the white man sees you walk down the street and calls out, ‘Hey, John! Come here’… to you, Sizwe Bansi… isn’t that a ghost? Or when his little child calls you ‘Boy’… you a man, circumcised with a wife and four children… isn’t that a ghost? Stop fooling yourself. All I’m saying is be a real ghost, if that is what they want, what they’ve turned us into. Spook them into hell, man!

What is more important? A name or work and relative freedom? Is our name part of our dignity? If Sizwe Bansi becomes Robert Zwelinzima, isn’t he just putting on a different mask of smiles? Those are some of the questions the play asks. I’ve obviously spoiled some of the answers. Sizwe Bansi is in the photographic studio after all, so it seems he’s made his choice. Even though he doesn’t seem to have the strength to smile when Styles asks him to. But what the reader do in the same circumstance?

I really liked this play. What a remarkable play to create during the Apartheid. At times, especially during Styles’ part, I was reminded of my beloved Dario Fo’s commedia dell’arte-style political theatre. This is similar, but it’s its own thing, it searches inward for tragic material that is largely absent from Fo’s buffoonery, and I love him for that, but one has to thank Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona for this remarkable piece of despair.

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