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Furore after SA born actress says 'theatre is a white invention'

2014-12-09 12:54

Cape Town - South African born Shakespearean actor and family member of anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, Dame Janet Suzman, made headlines this week with a controversial racial remark.

Suzman was quoted by The Guardian as saying that “theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare”.

According to the article the well-known actor was responding to a plea by author and actor, Meera Syal, in an interview with The Stage magazine that theatres should be catering more for Asian audiences.

Suzman, who recently starred in the critically acclaimed play Solomon and Marion in London, referred to the South African play she starred in as well as her young black co-star who is originally from Cape Town.

“He’s a totally brilliant actor. 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?

“And 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," Suzman told The Guardian.

Dame Suzman responds

After requesting comment regarding the article Dame Suzman told Channel24 in an official response that her comments in The Guardian refer only to a small part of a larger picture.

“I was not, when asked on the phone by the writer and standing in a noisy corridor, about to launch into a wide discussion with her about the origins of all world theatre.

“What I was referring to was a picture that I have of the West End or commercial London/British product. My impression is that it is very, very white - apart from a musical import from The Young Vic called The Scottsburgh Boys.

“A pretty good starting point, if you are avoiding the pitfalls of a general history lesson, is to start with the formal beginnings of English drama, and that, for my money, begins with William Shakespeare. Or no, sorry, the ancient Greeks - since we still regularly turn to their plays if primal subjects are in favour.

“When managements start to invest in Asian or black writers, things can start to pop. The Royal Court and Stratford East already do a lot of this.

“I stand by my comment that ‘going to the theatre’ is a pretty white way of spending an evening. And expensive at that!” Suzman said.

She added; “Of course, if you can boast Lenny Henry or Chiwetel Ejiofor as your leading man, black patrons will no doubt come along. The play I have recently done sported a magnificent performance by a young man from the townships of Cape Town and, as I say, one, maybe two, black faces turned up in the whole run. I was disappointed if not wholly surprised.

“But that absence indicates that going to a fringe theatre is not much on the black agenda. It was completely packed out with white faces. It is therefore quite apparent that work needs to be done at all levels to change this.”

Lara Foot responds

Channel24 also asked Lara Foot, writer and director of Solomon and Marion and the Artistic Director and CEO of the Baxter Theatre Centre, for comment on Suzman’s statement.

"I'm not sure what to say, the Janet I know, has been extremely active in integrated theatre in South Africa and has surely been quoted out of context. My guess is that she was talking about Western, formal, structured and institutionalised theaters not partaking in integrated theatre,” Foot said.

She added; “The Baxter theatre has more than a 60 % black attendance. I'd like the number of theatre goers in South Africa to grow and we are continually developing audiences in schools and in the greater community”.

Read more on:    theatre

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