This month, I have spent time thinking about the things – “little” or “big” – that may compromise people’s mental health. More importantly, I have pondered on how artists creatively address mental health, while taking care of their own mental health. I guess I am going back to the question of who takes care of the carer.
Coincidentally, I came across news of a ground-breaking festival; Ezempilo Mental Health Festival, due to take place at Wits University, Johannesburg under the curation of Drama For Life. I learned that at the festival, the play Ward 13 (not to be confused with Rebecca Taylor’s Ward Thirteen) would feature. I remembered watching Ward 13 at the National Arts Festival in 2022, performed by an incredibly talented, Ncanekile Nkosi. I remember witnessing an audience member breaking down uncontrollably from watching the play. Ncanekile plays different characters, but the central one is around Maria’s pregnancy journey amidst abandonment by the partner and cold service from the nurses in maternity ward 13 (named after a ward in a hospital in Tembisa). I didn’t get the chance to talk to the audience member because they never saw the play to the end. I did, and I was both elated by the artistic merit of the play and gutted by its content. And I remained curious on how Ncanekile debriefs.
As you would have rightly guessed, an encounter with the mental health festival brought back these 2022 memories and questions, and so I raised the question of actor’s debriefing to colleagues. I would like to share with you, dear members, the response from my mentor Warren Nebe. My hope is that it could enhance your artistic abilities in bringing such stories to the stage. He said that “care is not something separate or individual in orientation. Care is systematic, methodological, cultural and inherently a lived value. This means that the way the play is framed, the way the ensemble is formed and shaped and lived, the way the ensemble enters and exits the work, the way the director cares through directorial facilitation, the way boundaries are set with the ensemble, and the way individual artists integrate the values and approach into their lives matter”.
In the same dialogue thread, the writer of The Line, Gina Shmukler, layered the response by adding that “sometimes actors needs to be allowed to be free of the responsibility of literally carrying the emotion – but rather technically inhabiting it or rather landing it – understanding as actor with director– where/what the trigger point is for the audience.”
Their responses led me to reflect on the recent remarks by Dr Jerry Mofokeng wa Makhetha at the recent 17th South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTAs17), where he initiated a dialogue addressing the issue of working with influencers in creative contexts, where representation of lives is needed. As individuals with a massive following on social media, and potential viewers, wa Makhetha brought the issue of acting as a craft to the fore. While I understand the value of financial return through the box office, I remembered that acting is a profession that not only needs money, but that also nurtures people, so that that they may not be frustrated in bringing out the best of themselves. “It is hard to play against the wall,” wa Makhetha said. I wonder who is hearing him.
As an organisation that endeavours to expose children and young people to the performing arts, I am curious about the messages being sent about financial returns, personal enrichment and talent retention, and how that could influence children and young people’s career choices. I wonder who is hearing me.
Nevertheless, I am encouraged by the words of International Ma(g)dalena Network initiator, Bárbara Santos, that “to hear is a biological ability; to listen is a conscious option.”
- Lalu Mokuku is the Chairperson of ASSITEJ SA and ASSITEJ International EC member. She collaborated with Drama for Life in a groundbreaking project; the KOKO Nqongo, Knock Knock! Arts for Life! Mental health wellness project. It fuses playback theatre and art therapy approaches. In December, she will be attending the first international Playback theatre conference to be hosted in Africa under the theme of “roots and routes”.