Story and photography by Maseabata Sabu Mdee
Grahamstown, a well-recognised area in the Eastern Cape nestled comfortably between Port Elizabeth and East London. It is known for its prestigious University, it’s penchant for drink and gaiety and of course the National Arts Festival. Due to the fact that Grahamstown acts as my home thirty six weeks out of the year I have never been overly interested in staying for the National Arts Festival (i.e. “Fest”). I must confess that the idea of staying behind during the bitterly cold June vacation (sans the warmth of my mother’s house) to traipse the streets of the small city all in the name of arts and culture has never tickled my fancy. This year, however, I experienced a change in spirit and, as a resident of Grahamstown for almost four years, an overwhelming sense of obligation to experience the city as I never had before.
During the National Arts Festival (held recently from 27 June to 7 July) my small, mostly placid city came alive. I hate to use this clichéd expression but there really is no other way to describe the palpable, tangible energy Grahamstown possesses during this time. The markets, stalls, various events, the curious new comers and the excited locals, all of these factors work together to truly create ‘eleven days of amazing’.
As a National Arts Fest “newbie” I was unaware of just how quickly tickets would sell during this time and as a result I only got to watch four of the seven shows I intended to, luckily, these four were shows worth watching.
Things you left behind
Featuring Alicia McCormick and Jason Potgieter The Things You Left Behind can be perceived as both a love story as well as a death story. It is about the loss of a man and how both his longed-after presence and unexpected absence affects the lives of those he loved. Presented through a myriad of monologues The Things You Left Behind teaches its audience about the ephemerality of life, the strength and virtue of unconditional love, and the significance of seemingly casual encounters.
The Race Card
A show that will have you blushing and reeling with giggles Race Card stars stand-up comedian Siv Ngesi who subjects South Africa’s racial stereotypes to cringe-worthy, side splitting jokes and clever jabs. Subverting the racial divide by intelligently mocking the notions that create that divide; Siv Ngesi had his full-housed, multi-racial crowd wiping away endless tears of laughter.
My personal favourite, Tender is the explosive drama that addresses the multi-faceted, complicated lived experience of the modern day South African. It speaks to the various personal and political factors that form and inform one’s identity in this country. Most importantly, the play’s various vignettes present a democratic South Africa that is still affected by the vices of the past. It addresses the socio-political cracks that are at times overlooked by romanticised motifs of unity and also addresses the pain, humour and conviction of self-discovery.
Bitches be Crazy
The very last day I was introduced to the infamous Mary-Scary (played by DJ and comedian Rhys Woods). Mary-Scary is a sassy girl from the U.S and as an audience we were all treated to her electrifying singing and humorous tricks. Her performances and skits are all inspired by various members of the audience and as a result no one is safe from her antics and advances. This show is completely unscripted thus making it exhilarating and highly entertaining.
In between these shows included visits to the Village Green (and it’s beer tent), exciting art exhibitions, an array of craft and clothing stalls, hip hop performances, rap battles. The nights were spent at the famous Rat and Parrot.
Arts Fest is an event one must attend again and again and again.