A Different Language
CSUMB's One World Theater Festival brings strong messages from South Africa and Australia.
Thursday, February 3, 2000
Youth-oriented drama from Australia and South Africa is on stage this weekend at Cal State University Monterey Bay''s One World Theater Festival, as two internationally renowned theater companies bring their innovative styles of physical theater to our doorstep.
From South Africa comes Amazwi omoya, a Zulu phrase meaning "a message on the wind." The play, created and performed by South Africans Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane, is on a two-month West Coast tour.
Pearson and Mkhwane are at the forefront of the African Renaissance cultural movement. Under apartheid, when Pearson and Mkhwane got their start in theater, the movement was aimed at encouraging South Africa''s non-white populations to rise up against their country''s unjust racial laws. Since the abolition of apartheid in 1991, it has a different goal: embracing racial difference and uniting South Africa''s black and white populations through theater.
Amazwi omoya is a high-energy, audience participation show that mixes English, Zulu and a third "language" the actors call Bird Talk. South Africa has 11 official languages, and the actors present their show to audiences around the world, so the decision was made, Pearson says, to minimize the use of language in the production. "Because we play to a lot of different people, we try to communicate in other ways, one of which is Bird Talk," he says. He and Mkhwane replicate the distinctive calls of native South African birds in a kind of non-verbal "language," allowing the play''s subtext to speak for itself.
Without elaborate costumes or make-up, Pearson and Mkhwane become a flock of birds that hold a singing competition which they hope will yield peace. Instead, every bird tries to out-do the other, rather than listening to and realizing the beauty of their combined voices.
"A lot of our work is to do with culture," says Pearson. "One of the problems we see in places like America is that people really need to be exposed to other cultures. In our shows you can see how two different cultures can blend together."
While Amazwi omoya is distinctly African, its significance is universal. "Our work is about trying to change people, not to preach, but to help people realize the change [that has occurred in South African society]," says Mkhwane. "Touring the world has made us realize that racial issues are happening in other countries but in a different way than in southern Africa."
From Australia comes The Stones. Half comedy, half tragedy, this play is based on the true story of two Melbourne boys whose not-so-innocent fun spins out of control. One day in 1994, the boys were kicking rocks off a freeway overpass, trying to impress each other. One of the rocks smashed through the windshield of a passing car, killing the driver. The boys were charged with manslaughter, imprisoned briefly and later released on condition they never see each other again.
Stefo Nantsou, founder of Melbourne''s Zeal Theater, and Tom Lycos, an acrobat/musician, wrote the play with the help of the police officers and detectives in charge of the actual case. Their minimal set--a solitary ladder--transports the narrative strand from one location to the next, tracing the aftermath of the boys'' crime. Nantsou and Lycos play all the characters themselves, while strumming their electric guitars to provide the show''s music.
Since its 1996 debut in Melbourne, The Stones has toured Australia and Norway, and received several awards for educational theater. Zeal Theater is a two-man operation surviving solely on box office receipts. The company is dedicated to creating educative and entertaining productions for young audiences, and has gained critical acclaim for its honest theatrical treatments of social issues.
The Stones does not make any sweeping moral statements, but does pose some important questions about responsibility. As Nantsou told the Australian Herald Sun, "That''s how most kids get in a bad situation. They''re having a good time and all of a sudden something goes horribly wrong."
When the lights come up, the audience is invited to take part in a brief symposium with the actors about the issues raised by the play they have just seen. This clever tool facilitates theater as a forum for discussion, making The Stones particularly apt for young people.