The Cape Town Fringe Festival showcases South Africa’s fresh and emerging talent, in new productions and modern classics. With biting satire and social comment, this arts event seeks to reach out to non-theatergoers.
"Do you know where you should be?"
"No, my boss."
"You should be in prison. And when you come out of prison, do you know where you should go? To the bush!"
That's a dialogue between the self-employed musician and a policeman in the fast-paced political satire "Woza Albert!" - a South African classic, written in 1981. The Gugu Sithebe Arts and Cultural Center in the Langa township of Cape Town was only half full for a Monday afternoon performance, but that didn't hold back the fire of TQ Zondi and Mpilo Nzimande: Within 75 minutes and with full physical exertion the duo morphs into several personas of black South Africans and a white "baas" during the apartheid era. It won them an award at the 2015 National Arts Festival.
Mpilo Nzimande is glad that they can bring the play to the Cape Town Fringe: "We are traveling to theaters in the townships and we get to engage with people who are not used to going to theaters and that's what I love about it," he said.
Reaching out to underprivileged communities is a key issue for festival director Tony Lankester even though most of the 80 performances are shown at Cape Town's City Hall. "We have got venues in Langa, in Khayelitscha, in Delft, just to take the fringe to people rather than sitting back and waiting for them to come to us, so that we can help stimulate and build a theater audience in those parts of the city as well."
Today's South Africa
A browse through the festival program reveals a mix of comedy, family friendly plays such as the infamous "Gruffalo" and political theater, as well as performance art. There is no overall theme to the Cape Town Fringe, Lankester said. What is happening on the stages, he adds, is the artists' response to the world around them.
In the South Africa of 2016 this includes, among other things, the examination of the student protests and the fight against gender-based violence. The latter is the subject-matter of artist Refilwe Nkomo. In her choreopoem, "Songs for Khwezi", Nkomo seeks to stir up a conversation about rape culture. A choreopoem combines poetry, dance, music and song and "Khwezi" is the pseudonym of the woman who accused incumbent president Jacob Zuma of rape in 2005. In 2006 the High Court acquitted Zuma, Khwezi on the other hand faced threats by Zuma's supporters. Nkomo said it is bizarre that there isn't more outrage at the violence perpetrated against women. "I think in trying to become this ideal South African rainbow nation, there is a lot of silence that has taken place around issues concerning women and girls."
The role of the arts
Nkomo believes the arts are an important means of breaking this silence. She said that for many children in Africa, taking up a career in arts is still an incredibly courageous choice. They are always encouraged to become doctors, lawyers, or engineers. But there are other things in life, she argues.
"For me, it's really important to think about what we want South Africa to look like, what we want our relationships to look like and how we craft our culture and understand it," she said.
At the Arts and Cultural Centre in Langa, Mpilo Nzimande and TQ Zondi receive standing ovations for their performance. Their play talks about an era that ended more than 20 years ago, but they say there is still a need to remind people of where South Africa comes from as a country and discuss where it should be heading.
The Fringe Festival, it seems, is a good platform to start these conversations.