Mike van Graan: South African theatre still has a vital job to do

From a speech, delivered by the playwright, at the Theatre Museum in London
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The Independent Online

"So what will you write about now that apartheid has gone?", was the question to theatre makers after the country's first non-racial elections in 1994. The world - and indeed many South Africans - had grown up on a diet of "protest theatre", a label given to the numerous plays that gave insight into the suffering of the black majority under the rule of a white minority government.

"So what will you write about now that apartheid has gone?", was the question to theatre makers after the country's first non-racial elections in 1994. The world - and indeed many South Africans - had grown up on a diet of "protest theatre", a label given to the numerous plays that gave insight into the suffering of the black majority under the rule of a white minority government.

Athol Fugard and the Market Theatre had helped to provide insight into the anti-apartheid struggle through extensive touring of their plays that featured a range of characters, but always against the imposing landscape of the apartheid reality.

Contemporary South Africa is not short of themes. It is also a much more interesting place to write about than 10 years ago. The political situation is more complex and the challenges of building a post-apartheid society create the potential for characters that display a greater range and internal development than that afforded by the "black versus white", "us against them" binary oppositions of the apartheid era. Those who struggled against human rights abuses, now occupy positions of power and are faced with all the responsibilities and temptations that this brings. Former enemies are obliged to work together as those who hold economic power and those who hold political sway are no longer the same. Race remains an overriding theme, but it is over-layered by themes such as crime, violence against women and children, corruption and HIV/Aids.

It is a time for the bold to push back boundaries and for theatre makers to provide leadership in their field, so the huge potential that theatre has to contribute to the making and sustaining of democracy may be further unleashed.

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