The State Theatre: Bullies in the wings

SAst with morfe people (2)

Is it racist to criticise a state funded theatre? The South African State Theatre opened in 1981. It is a government funded company originally intended to promote the development of the performing arts. Arts practitioners claim that it is in a very poor state today and its administration is sorely lacking. Critics have been attacked for saying this and accused of doing so for racist reasons

WHY would a professional who’s given a whole career to the arts industry suddenly be deemed racist? On Sunday I attended a performance by South African-born performance artist Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza, at Pretoria’s South African State Theatre (SAST), accompanied by arts journalist Robyn Sassen. Khoza is well-known throughout Europe and elsewhere, and collaborates frequently with South African-born choreographer Robyn Orlin.

We expected to watch the piece as we would in any theatre, based on criteria theatres worldwide honour. This includes making the audience safe, and feel safe, the production’s age limits, allowing for people with disabilities, not allowing dangerous aspects such as open flame to exist unattended.

When we arrived at SAST, however, we were confronted by a frightening array of experiences: we as white theatre-goers were treated with obvious hostility by certain people present; and SAST is mostly in a state of sad neglect. It exists on public funding. Sassen is a veteran journalist who has covered the arts extensively, for over 20 years, including productions at SAST. She has written about its condition previously.

The work, Red Femicycle, which focuses on South African femicide and bullying was hosted in an unusual space in the theatre complex. Ushers took us there via a convoluted route, which they clearly were not sure of themselves. Eventually we arrived at the venue’s appallingly shabby reception area.

It was clear that we as whites stood out like a sore thumb. When I picked up my cell phone to photograph the room’s state, I was aggressively confronted by a black man who told me he hadn’t granted me permission to do that. He did not identify himself.  I said we were from the media, this was a public place, and the pictures were not for publication, but a record of the room’s condition. Others had also been photographing. I asked why he had confronted me, not them. At that moment the work began. He said threateningly, “We will continue this afterwards!”

Sassen decided to write a story on her blog about the theatre itself and our experience there before she reviewed the work. It was published and immediately went viral. (the link to her story is given below)

The next morning a man who according to his Facebook page is associated with the regional secretariat of the ANC youth league, said in one of several rambling vitriolic Facebook posts: “…This Woman called Robyn Sassen is of no difference to a vulture of doom that is hovers over black lives… a scavenger that moves with great menace toward anything that represents black excellence!!! … we do not need an opinion of a bloody racist and bias agent …”[sic] A picture follows this text, of several angry-looking men, led by one holding a spear menacingly.

Clearly, this person is only one voice. But on Facebook, regardless of the credibility of the post or who it comes from, responses get exaggerated and polarised in the face of controversy: people publicly take a side or privately extend support by contacting one side or the other, as many did with Sassen. Khoza and his cast went out of their way to offer Sassen support.

We come from a ghastly racial history. The ANC has not yet learnt how to run a country, nor cherish the arts which it treats with disdain. It also hasn’t learnt to bring to book troublemakers and thugs who are embarrassing its good name or what is left of it.

The purpose of this article is not to make gross generalisations. It is to present a snapshot of an incident which left a deep, troubling impression.

Arts journalism is already beleaguered as an important critical field of art making. Sassen says she will not again review anything at SAST. It has to date, not reacted officially to her story other than “likes” from its artistic director Aubrey Sekhabi for some of the hostile Facebook comments.

Sassen story on State Theatre: State Theatre How Dare You

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za