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Can We Remove the Black?

13 March

Ayesha Casely-Hayford | Actress blog

The National Theatre has been organising a series of discussions on plays. It has called it the Black Plays Series.

I made it to the discussion called ‘Township plays”, which was led by Natasha Bonnelame. We looked at and discussed plays that were created via a workshop process by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Nstona during South Africa’s time of apartheid. One of the plays, ‘Sizwe Bansi is Dead’, we looked at most closely. This play was not written in text until years later for fear the text would be used in court as evidence against the black participants, Kani and Nstona (this had been a previous consequence in relation to plays Kani and Nstona were working on with Fugard, who is white). In its free archive, The National Theatre has footage of the last production of Sizwe Bansi is dead performed by Kani and Nstona in 2007. After one performance of Sizwe, a Palestinian communicated how deeply moved she was and how the play spoke of her own political plight.

We also talked about ‘Bopha!’ by Percy Mtwa and ‘Township Stories’ by Relativity. Township Stories speaks of the horrors black people are doing against other black people in post-apartheid South Africa. It speaks of the cyclical nature of violence. Bopha! is a tale of struggle within a family unit to realise they are victims of the regime they are working for.

All of the plays are of ordinary people living their daily lives. Forgotten and small.

These powerful plays give us a view of what was happening to black people. However, they explore why we do what we do, human decision-making. The circumstances are set but the decisions being made are human. The strength of these plays lies in their portrayal of the human spirit. The continued life of these plays lies in people of all races and cultures being able to go and see the play and say “yes, that’s me, I understand that because that’s me” and they don’t know a single thing about South Africa or apartheid and they are black or they are not black.

However, most of the people who attended the discussion at The National Theatre were black. It made me wonder, can we remove the black? Does the label “Black Plays Series” isolate a white audience?

I have finally concluded that perhaps it does isolate…but the label has to stay. The damage that has been done to black people has resulted in the need to label and define by skin colour. The definition is needed to empower black people and to positively strengthen their identity – it says “I am here, I have always been here, look and see the presentation of my life  – I am black and I am alive”.  Can we remove the black? No…but being human comes first. The label should stay but the mindset of what “black” means should change.

Being able to watch a person different to oneself, to empathise, understand, to connect. That is progress. That is enlightenment. Everyone should read “Black Plays Series” and know that it goes beyond the skin colour or culture of “black” – black is people, black means life. The “Black Plays Series” is about and relevant to, the whole entire world.

I hope the National Theatre will do this series again and I hope the future audience will be a beautiful mix of colours from around the world.


Ayesha Casely-Hayford | Actress blog

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