Sarah Pett

Early Career Researcher and Teacher (SOAS)

A White Invention? Theatre, Race, and the Janet Suzman Fiasco

“Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare.”

Two days ago, on 9 December, the Guardian attributed the above statement to Janet Suzman, an actor of South African origin best known in the UK for her work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in South Africa for directing a multi-racial production of Othello at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre in the mid-1980s.* Responses to this statement have understandably ranged from furious to bemused, with figures from Ben Okri to Meera Syal to Nadia Latif to Bonnie Greer expressing shock, disappointment, and disgust at the ignorance and racism that might reasonably be seen to underpin sentiments of this sort. I say might, because the exact circumstances of Suzman’s statement remain unclear, leaving room for misrepresentation and decontextualization. And yet, perhaps even this generosity is misplaced, as Suzman’s reply to the charges levelled against her do little to remedy the confusion or calm the outrage her original comments elicited.

I found Suzman’s statements particularly interesting, for a variety of reasons. I’m currently halfway through teaching a first year module entitled “Global Shakespeare” at SOAS, as part of the School’s new BA English degree – an experience that has prompted me to rethink in radical ways my relationship to Shakespeare’s work, both as written texts and as staged/filmed productions, which I last thought about at any length as an undergraduate. In this vein, I’m troubled by what exactly Suzman means when she says “it starts with Shakespeare,” and the implications of this statement for her interpretation of Othello, which is on the course viewing list for next term – something I might blog about in the near future. In this vein, I’m also interested in contemporary theatre audiences, particularly for Shakespeare, though Suzman’s comments are of limited value when compared to more nuanced explorations of this issue, for example the Devoted and Disgruntled event organized by Lemn Sissay and Tyrone Huggins earlier this year, or the work of Sita Thomas. More pressingly, I’m interested in the backdrop against which these comments unfolded, but which has received remarkably little coverage in the ensuing debate: the UK run of Lara Foot’s Solomon and Marion, a two-person play in which Suzman takes a leading role.

I attended the final performance of Lara Foot’s Solomon and Marion at the Birmingham Rep, on November 1st of this year. A partnership between the Rep, London’s The Print Room, and Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre, the play charts the evolving relationship between Marion, an elderly white woman of English heritage, and Solomon, the grandson of her former domestic servant, who turns up unannounced on her doorstep shortly before the 2010 World Cup. Foot’s play recently won the Fleur Du Cap Award for Best New South African Play, and has been praised for its “touching” and “optimistic” portrayal of an unlikely friendship. It is certainly a significant departure from Foot’s hard-hitting earlier work Tshepang (2002) and Karoo Moose (2007), which focus on themes of child rape, though some continuity can be found in the later play’s orbit around the murder of Marion’s son Jonathan some years before Solomon’s arrival. In spite of this, it is on the whole a surprisingly–disconcertingly?–light-hearted affair that left me with a sense of discomfort and a host of questions about theatre and race in South Africa.

For me, Solomon and Marion risks entrenching, rather than interrogating, ideas about the social issues at stake in contemporary South Africa in ways that are deeply problematic. In light of this, Suzman’s recent comments, and particularly those related to the play, are discomfiting.

Though difficult at times to place, the performances were not the main problem. Suzman injects Marion with a generous dose of what I hope was intended as melodrama, and in this way digs–albeit gently–at the bleeding-heart stereotype, though as the play progressed I wondered whether what I read as melodramatic was instead meant to be poignant.  As a foil to this, the impressive Khayalethu Anthony’s command of body language in particular (whose previous roles include Soldier Number 2 in the Segal Centre’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Military Soldier number 2 in last year’s Long Walk to Freedom) added a depth to the character of Solomon that would otherwise have been lacking. In fact, it was in Anthony’s outstanding performance that the limitations of Foot’s script really began to show. As the play progresses, we see the would-be tsotsi tamed into a companion for an elderly white woman, his emasculation evident in the contrast between the glimpse we get of Solomon in his initiation outfit at the play’s opening and the closing scene of him laughing coyly on the sofa alongside Marion as they watch TV. Is Solomon a friend to Marion, or an exotic pet? A surrogate son, or an unpaid domestic worker occasionally allowed the indulgence of an hour or two of kwaito on the radio, providing he keeps it at a reasonable volume? A replacement, then, for his dead grandmother? The question is barely worth asking. In spite of Solomon’s youth and bravado, we are aware throughout of Marion’s power, the economic capital she has accrued as a beneficiary of apartheid, and in this vein it is telling that the action never shifts from her house, a choice that places the realities of Solomon’s life outside firmly off-stage.

Perhaps this is what Foot is getting at after all, and at points it seems impossible that she could have imagined any thing else. I’m thinking here in particular of Marion’s shockingly short-sighted speech on the “re-distribution of violence” in South Africa, which makes a complete mockery of existing crime statistics, and places disproportionate value on the life of one (white, male, middle-class) individual to the exclusion of myriad others — a phenomenon too often seen in the mainstream media, not just in South Africa but, as the events of Ferguson remind us, all over the world. If this really was Foot’s intention, however, the message didn’t come across clearly. The play’s intertext with the work of JM Coetzee aggravates this.  While Marion’s reading of Slow Man early on in the play signals this intertextual relationship, the play’s central conceit brings to mind rather one of Coetzee’s most explicitly political and heart-rending novels, Age of Iron, in which an elderly white woman with terminal cancer strikes up an unlikely relationship with a homeless man of indeterminate ethnic origin (though probably coloured in the South African sense of the term). On the one hand, Foot’s reworking of the novel attests to an interesting trickle-down from experimental fiction to more accessible, middlebrow forms of cultural production in South Africa. On the other, a comparison with this source text highlights the one-dimensionality of Foot’s play, from which the interiority and nuance of Age of Iron is sorely lacking.

Suzman draws on the UK run of Solomon and Marion in her recent comments, using the play’s audience as supporting evidence for her argument about race and audience. Of this run, she says: “I saw one black face in the room, at the Print Room. I rail against that and say why don’t black people come to see a play about one of the most powerful African states? […] they don’t bloody come. They’re not interested. It’s not in their culture, that’s why. Just as their stuff is not in white culture.” It’s unclear here whether she’s referring to a single performance at the Print Room, or the run as a whole: at any rate, the Birmingham Rep audience on the night I attended was relatively mixed, in racial terms at least, and included several people whose accents and appearance suggested they were of non-white South African origin.  Given the play’s content and characters, however, this distinction is somewhat beside the point. Yes, theatre audiences in Britain are for the most part white and middle-class, and this is a problem. Suzman’s explanation for this, however, is not only inaccurate, but dangerous. The assumption, for example, that “black culture” and “white culture” are homogeneous, mutually exclusive entities, or that “black people” should be interested in plays about South Africa, and in Solomon and Marion specifically, perpetuate the idea that non-white audiences operate as a generic group whose interests don’t extend beyond the fact of their non-whiteness, rather than a diverse population with a range of different interests and passions: a form of racial essentialism that is central to the failure of attempts to attract and sustain wider theatre audiences. It also reveals a deep-seated and willful refusal to acknowledge that diversity cannot be achieved by simply putting non-white characters on stage.

More specifically, Suzman’s suggestion that “black people” should be interested in “a play about one of the most powerful African states” fails to account for the profound, and profoundly justifiable, disinterest that potential audience members with any knowledge of South Africa might have felt when confronted with a synopsis of Solomon and Marion, especially in light of reviews that describe how the play “only ever seems to skim the surface of the social complexities of modern-day South Africa,” ultimately reproducing “a familiar portrait of grief, isolation and guilt” and  “a study of reconciliation” in which the central figure is an ageing, rich, white woman and the central event the murder of a young white man by a group of young black men — a disinterest that, though by no means limited by race, might feel particularly acute to those who are non-white. In this, Suzman inadvertently hits the nail on the head. When viewed through the lens of race, as Suzman invites us to do, Solomon and Marion exemplifies a kind of theatre that is culturally white: a theatre in which non-white characters are instrumentalized, fetishised, infantilized, and which goes back at least as far as the 18th century. Not only does Solomon and Marion inscribe a distinctively South African white narrative of victimization and anxiety, it presents a depiction of blackness that is at best patronizing, and at worst an act of ethical violence in which the entire audience is made complicit. Suggesting that “black people” aren’t interested in these depictions is perhaps the most offensive and reductive part of Suzman’s statement for if anything, the absence of “black face[s]” in the Print Room audience should be recognized as an act of protest against the ways in which theatre has been, and continues to be, harnessed to the invention of whiteness at the expense of blackness.

* This previous experience in radical theatre is perhaps Suzman’s only line of defense, and a shaky one at that: her casting of John Kani in the Market Theatre Othello followed fast on the footsteps of PW Botha’s declaration of a nation-wide state of emergency, imposed in an attempt to quell the rising tide of anti-apartheid activity that eventually brought about the country’s transition to democracy. Though not technically illegal–founded in 1976, the Market Theatre was in fact one of several unsegregated public theatre spaces in South Africa–this production was groundbreaking, though perhaps not in quite the ways one might imagine, as Adele Seeff demonstrates in her excellent study of the production and its reception (unfortunately not open-access). In fact, in many ways Suzman’s Othello anticipates some of her more recent statements about theatre and race.

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3 comments on “A White Invention? Theatre, Race, and the Janet Suzman Fiasco

  1. Con
    December 16, 2014

    This is a nicely written blog. I might add, though, that theatre-makers in South Africa pander to shallow sentiment, and have done so for a very long time. As a result, when ‘dealing’ with race (as they often rush to do in the most awfully and lazily didactic terms) they have created a palate for disingenuous and un-nuanced confirmations of the easily digested myths that often package race relations in South Africa, some of which this blog mentions. It is an incredible shame that Foot created this piece of anecdotal pandering (Solomon and Marion) when she is capable of a complex and crushing analysis of so much that sinks and floats us (Tsepang).

    • essiepett
      December 16, 2014

      Agreed! And not just in South Africa… Given Foot’s previous work I really expected something different though, which is as you say an incredible shame.

  2. Naima
    December 18, 2014

    Reblogged this on Plays, Films & Plays and commented:
    Wanted to highlight this really thoughtful response to Janet Suzman’s comments from teaching fellow and researcher, Sarah Pett. Her points on whether a play entrenches or interrogates racial identities/issues is something a lot of theatre writers miss. Definitely something I’d like to explore further.

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