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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

HAPPY NATIVES (article first published : 2003-07-8)

It’s an impressive leap for talented actor/writer/director Greig Coetzee’s from his multi-award winning hour-long play White Men with Weapons, which hit home to many South Africans who served on the border, to his new full-length drama which was invited onto the mainframe of the National Arts Festival.

Along with a packed audience, I attended the long-awaited South African premiere of Happy Natives in Grahamstown. The title comes from Greg’s response to his “growing concern that theatre from Africa presented outside of Africa” either deals with “wretchedness”, “triumph over adversity” or “happy dancing natives”.

Played out against an impressively simple but effective set which looks like a miniature apartment block made of plastic beer/soft drink crates, Greig and his co-star Sello Sebotsane take on a number of characters. The storyline deals with two actors who play the corporate window-dressing “gumboot-dancing-Zulu-lions” game when commissioned to present a short entertainment piece for an advertising agency representing a government department.

Both performers are excellent in their various roles. Greig is a delight as the casual writer Kenneth; a garrulous Indian shopkeeper; the fervently PC and “new South African” female ad agency head, and the loutish gun-toting neighbour. Sello plays Mto, the new black man in the neighbourhood as well as a cultural minister and was an absolute scenestealer as said neighbour’s maid, Prudence. The final scene is powerful and very telling.

In a muscled and challenging script, some of the issues are wrestled with that face an emerging all-representative South African society today. The new home-owner is mistaken for a burglar at his own home in a previously-white Durban suburb or a loiterer in the local tearoom. He advocates mealies being grown in his garden and the slaughter of a goat in his back yard. The argument is posed: Is such behaviour lowering the tone of the neighbourhood and infringing animal rights? Or should one respect another culture in the need of a man to invite his father’s spirit to his house in a proper traditional manner?

It’s no secret that it is women who make the theatre choices in a family. White Men With Weapons had male-driven audiences as so many men were able to identify with the characters and the time frame of the work, where those on border duty suddenly had to handle the fact that the “enemy” wasn’t the enemy any longer. Happy Natives will generate the same response as home-owners old and new begin to identify with the same issues that are represented in the play.

Happy Natives is directed by Christine Harmar-Brown and Mark Rayment with designs by Emma Donovan and lighting design by Flick Ansell.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the play, laughed a great deal and was impressed by Greig’s writing and the performances, I came away a little unsatisfied by the experience. On much reflection, I have put it down to the fact that while the play was excellently directed, impeccably performed and efficiently presented, it lacked – for me – an African soul. It was too careful and a little sterile.

Perhaps this has to do with the fact that it’s been playing to audiences in the United Kingdom during which time it was highly successful and critically acclaimed at last year's Edinburgh Festival. The performance I saw was the first on African soil and audience response often seemed to take the actors by surprise. I have no doubt that it will grow considerably in its nationwide tour and take on a transfusion of South African lifeblood. I shall look forward to seeing it again when it comes to KZN.

Happy Natives moves on to play The Sanlam Studio Baxter Theatre in Cape Town from July 8 to August 2 and The Liberty Theatre on The Square in Sandton, Johannesburg from August 5 to 30.

Performances in KZN take place at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre (September 2 to 14); The Natal Witness Hilton Arts Festival from September 19 to 21 and at the Hexagon Theatre in Pietermaritzburg from September 23 to 26. Book at Computicket. Don’t miss it.– Caroline Smart




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