Not so long ago, I received training on playback theatre by a phenomenal teacher, Cherae Hailey. At the end of the training workshop, she asked each one of us how we planned to use the insights from playback theatre going forward. I said I would like to use playback Theatre to have conversations with parents about parenting.
But now the pressure is getting even worse …
I was in East London somewhere and we were having a playback theatre performance with and for learners. As per the form’s ethos, there was no script, but only a theme: memory. Perhaps some of you, dear members, know about the care we need to exercise when we stage traumatic experiences to avoid re-traumatizing or re-enforcing traumatic behaviours.
Some of you may recall that on 26.6.22 the spotlight was focused on Scenery Park in East London, Eastern Cape. This was after a tragedy where 21 young people died at the Tavern called Enyobeni. You may recall that many of those young people who died were learners, and as an organisation that works with and for young people, we were deeply concerned about the circumstances that led to this tragedy. We learnt that these young people were in a “pens down “celebration. Some of us may know that celebrations of this kind have other names such as “post Matric dance” or “40 days” or … you name it… One particular element about these events is excessive alcohol and drug consumption, including ridiculing of school and teachers.
The particular matter that I would like to talk to relates to my ill-preparedness toward having conversations with parents. At the performance in the schools, I heard harrowing stories of how parents/guardians ill-treated their children. I heard how these strained relationships encouraged young people to look for solace in situations or contexts that may be harmful. I also heard stories of young people appreciating bonds in their families and being acutely aware of other young people who do not receive the expected love and nurturing from family members, but instead are reduced and never appreciated.
Let me add something about Playback Theatre. It is a type of theatre that happens on the spot without any script. It takes a lot of listening and responsiveness to be able to transform people’s stories into theatrical experiences instantly. Some people argue that this form of theatre is the hardest, because one never gets an opportunity to process information through rehearsals. I could not agree more.
After the first performance, the conductor in the first school fell ill and I found myself stepping into the role of conductor for the second performance. Again, the audience shared disheartening stories, but they were also difficult to interact with. Hours later when I got home, the memory of the stories hit me in the gut and I was nauseous. The more I tried to dismiss the feeling, the more it presented itself to the point that I started puking.
I then wrote to ask colleagues if this reaction was normal. I did add that I had felt disgusted by the stories shared about how parents treat their children.
My mentor Warren Nebe said something that got me thinking deeply. He said “It’s a normal reaction to abnormal conditions. Parents, elders, and leaders of this time have become what they despised. This is oppression introjected and then externalised as abuse. Thank God you can still puke. Because others want us to swallow and ingest the violence”. Adding that “I do believe, however, that we have to reframe our training of Applied Drama, Playback Theatre and other forms in South Africa.. Our work needs to be trauma-informed. In practice. That means a number of training and structural changes.”
My colleague Hleze Kunju helped me to connect the dots by pointing out that “both schools were equally mind-blowing for me. It was excellent that, as hard as it was, you didn’t cut corners, and the more you persevered, the more the situation revealed itself. (It was clear how hard they were trying to keep their guard up…) There was definitely internal bleeding there”.
Any phenomenal facilitator knows the old adage; ‘read the space’. Any phenomenal writer knows the old adage, ‘show, and don’t tell’. Every time I experience your work dear members, these phrases come to mind.
I would therefore like to thank you for all that you do for children in your immediate environments, in South Africa and beyond. Just remember ‘the pressure is getting worser because re ya sebetsa (we work) le ha eka rea bapala ha re sebetsa (even though it looks like we are playing when we work)’.
I am aware that the reputation of some artists has been questioned, as it relates to relationships with children. In this regard, our legislative frameworks can provide a safer space, but this also begs for more involvement and support from the parents, guardians and/or caregivers.
We need strong advocacy to center the arts in all that we do for humanity.
- Lalu Mokuku is the chairperson of ASSITEJ SA and Executive Committee Member of ASSITEJ International. She is a member of MEQOQO Playback Theatre Inspired Collective, based at Rhodes University.