Every year, in the dead of South African winter, the country’s National Arts Festival takes over the university town of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. Telling South Africans I’d be going to the Grahamstown Festival would invoke one of two responses: “Ohmygosh, you are going to just love it! The art, the creative geniuses, the parties—it’s all fabulous!”
Or: “What’s Grahamstown?”
Well, to my travel companions and me, Grahamstown is that place where we spent some quality time in the police station, saw a Dutch guy ribbon dance while wearing high heels and singing Lady Gaga, and slept in multiple layers of pants and sweaters because it was so cold—and that was all within the first 12 hours of arriving.
Four of us—Kane, Golden, MB, and me—stayed out pretty late on a Wednesday night celebrating a friend’s birthday, but somehow managed to make it up and into a rented Nisson Tiida by 8:30 the following morning. Kane drove the entire 900 km trek to Grahamstown confidently and safely, but also quite quickly. 10 hours you say, Google maps? Oh ho ho, how about eight? That’s including a half hour diversion in a Mossel Bay township and a lunch stop in Knysna.
The drive was along the N2 highway, through a stretch known as the Garden Route, a term that really undersells the beauty of the experience. Mountains, lakes, oceans–you name the natural wonder and you’re likely to pass an example of it here.
As we pulled into Grahamstown, we found our way to the Rhodes University dorm where we’d crash for the next three nights, dropped off our stuff, and headed into town for some dinner. The RA (here given the ominous title of “sub-warden”) at the dorm recommended a pub called the Rat and Parrot. We moseyed over and quickly realized that in a quiet university town, we’d found the one place that was packed. We almost left because of the crowds, but the manager snagged us a table by the front door at the last minute, and it seemed unlikely that much else was open anyway.
And then MB’s purse was stolen. We’re not sure how it happened. I mean, we’re sure that someone took it off the back of her chair and made it out of the restaurant without anyone else noticing, but we’re lacking those other crucial details that could potentially lead to the apprehension of a suspect. Two of us went to get air time for our phones and when we came back, MB reached back for her camera to show us some pictures and realized her purse was gone and along with it her wallet, keys, camera, phone, audio recorder, and flip cam.
This, of course, is how we ended up in the Grahamstown police department at 10 p.m. our first night there. MB needed to file a report for insurance purposes, and while the station was otherwise deserted, no one seemed to be in a particular hurry to get anything done. Not a computer in sight, and old man in an even older sweater entered her case into a massive log book, one of those tomes you blow dust off the cover of before using both hands to crack the spine.
I give MB a lot of credit. Not for getting her purse jacked, that was a dumb move (kidding, kidding!), but for handling it all so smoothly. Credit cards cancelled within the hour, applications for a new driver’s license in place within a day, and a genuine thankfulness that “at least no one was hurt.”
Still, it was a lot of stuff to lose in one go.
But the next morning, she was up and alert, ready to embrace the arts. The rest of us followed, trying to find our way to the media check-in spot. You’d think they’d put this somewhere central, but it was actually in the far back corner of a building on top of a hill, seemingly miles away from everything. Nice. Because we didn’t account having to drive to Timbuktu and back to get our media comps, I missed my first scheduled show—a play that was supposed to squeeze all of Shakespeare’s plays in 97 minutes. The ol’ English major in me was a little bit sad, but somehow, I think I’ll live.
We had some time until our next event, and it was around this time we figured out it was freezing. Sure, it had been cold at night, but now it was day, and the cloudless sky was filled with bright sunshine that was somehow completely devoid of heat. This is especially confusing for Angelinos, I think. But the cold by itself would have been okay. It was the wind! Walking outside with exposed cheekbones was like instant, intense microderm abrasion–perhaps a novelty at first, but ultimately painful and unproductive.
Given the chill factor, MB and I were ready to see some art go down, if only because it meant getting inside. Waiting to have our tickets scanned, we overheard a man talking about being lucky to get tickets because this show “was almost sold out.” We made our way inside a church annex doubling as a performance space and had two realizations—this building was not heated (nor were any of the venues we saw subsequent performances in) and the reason this show “was almost sold out” was because it was set up theater-in-the round (or semi-circle) style with only about 20 seats.
The next hour was confusing. First of all, no one in the audience took off their heavy coats, hats, gloves, etc (see part about this entire town being cold). Then there was the “play” itself. Are one-man productions considered plays? What about when it’s a musing on truth in pop culture as told through a Dutch actor playing problematic journalist Stephen Glass with no attempt at an American accent and a penchant for messing up lines but still making intense eye contact? Yeah. Then, he somehow transitioned from playing Glass to stripping off his business attire to reveal electric blue tights and white tank top, and then added a hot pink wig and high heels and started talking about the downfalls of forced, mandatory positive thinking on cancer patients with occasional interludes of ribbon dancing and singing “Poker Face.” It ended, as these things tend to I suppose, with him yelling into a loudspeaker and going manically back and forth between imitating Lady Gaga and a pack of vicious dogs before reaching into a shopping bag and throwing newspaper confetti into the air.
One event down, six to go.
Fortunately, from there, the shows got better. Later that day we watched a Siv Ngesi comedy routine—musings on differences between black and white people that wouldn’t have been anything groundbreaking in the States, but evoked a big response from the crowd here. A lot of his jokes relied on having an intimate knowledge of SA politics and rugby players and footballers—I could keep up with some of it, but other jokes were lost on me completely. Totally boring, done-to-death jokes (“My black mother told my white girlfriend she had a big, beautiful butt and she was so offended, but my mom meant it as a compliment because we think big butts are sexy!”) were paired with more Africa-centric, did-he-just-say-that jokes (“When my white friend works out and loses five kilos, everyone says he looks great. When I start to loose weight, everyone assumes I have AIDS!”). My favorite part of his bit may have been at the very end when he said, “Remember, the grass is always greener on the other side, but that’s because they have more shit over there.”
After that, it was a dance performance that had moments of inspiring strength and grace, but some problems with an issue that I believe is officially known in the dance world as “staying together.” Word on the street was that a performance earlier in the day had been better. The piece had lots of lifts and leaps, so I can understand being exhausted.
The next day brought more dance—this time going from kinda awkward to practically unwatchable. These performers were younger and seemed to think that scandalous costumes could substitute for technique or choreography that makes any sense. Not true. I’d try to watch their feet to avoid looking at boobs that were about to pop out of purple demi-bras, but that too ultimately proved too painful and settled for looking just above their heads and planning a to-do list.
One of those items on the list was to actually record an interview for work. Nothing so far had seemed youth appropriate or even related, but the next play fit the bill. So the idea is that these two guys walk out on to a set-less stage and…well, here, let me let them tell you about it.
“Mafeking Road” is my favorite thing I saw at the Festival. Funny, unique, and totally together. And exposure to a new author (to me, anyway) is always a plus. Herman Charles Bosman short stories, here I come. The guys will be bringing their play to Cape Town in October. If you’re around then, be sure to catch them.
Final thoughts: I have no idea what to compare the National Arts Festival to in the States. Just in the variety of performances, set-up (essentially taking over an entire city and transforming interiors of college buildings, churches, and sporting clubhouses into performance halls), and general vibe–I’ve never been to or heard of anything like it. Maybe Sundance? Again, never been, but I bet the screening halls there are heated.
Even though art may have uniting properties, this is still a racially divided festival operating in a racially divided town. One block offers cute cafes and curio shops serving mostly white patrons. One block up boasts liquor stores and Laundromats serving mostly black patrons. Most audience members were older, well dressed, white—the kind of people with disposable income to spend on arts festivals. The one show we saw with a mostly black audience also featured an almost entirely black cast. It’s the only play I’ve ever been to where audience members would obviously turn to look at my companions and me during the especially funny or raunchy bits (and were there ever raunchy bits) to see if we were laughing. Most of the time, we were. Some of the play was in this Afrikaans / Xhosa blend, but considering it was about sex workers all living together in an apartment and filled with over-the-top hand motions and pantomimes, it was pretty easy to get the gist. When things got serious at the end (spoiler alert!) and it’s revealed that the matron of this group has been unknowingly sleeping with her son and is now pregnant, the suddenness of the plot point and the pathos with which it was acted yielded more gasps of laughter than tears, I had no idea how I was “supposed” to react. I think I just sat slack-jawed and wide-eyed. Don’t know how much confusion the girls in front of us who kept turning around could register on my face.
Finally, being away for another long weekend gave new insight to the concept of home. Whenever someone at the Festival asked us where we were from, instead of explaining that we all came from different states in the US but were studying in California and here for the summer (winter!) etc., we just said “Cape Town,” and no one questioned us.
When we made it back to Kaap Stad after an equally beautiful drive home, the first thing when said as we flung open the apartment door and were greeted by the smell of stale, moldy air and ridiculous soccer player paintings was yell, “We’re home!”