S. Africa arts festival looking lively

Controversy, sponsorship pullout are issues of the past

GRAHAMSTOWN, South Africa — Organizers of the 2003 National Arts Festival reported ticket sales up 40% from last year as the festival regained confidence after 2002’s funding crisis.

The 29th edition of the annual festival, held in the university town of Grahamstown, wrapped July 5 after a week that featured 1,641 perfs from nearly 300 productions, including a crop of new work from local artists.

A little controversy can be a good thing, and this festival had its fair share, from the public slaughter of a goat in a staged traditional African ceremony to nudity and lap-dancing with stunned aud members in Deon Opperman’s “Whore.”

Veteran playwright-actor Pieter-Dirk Uys, an outspoken AIDS-awareness activist who introduced his hard-hitting, AIDS-themed “Auditioning Angels,” attracted public anger and physical threats for using the word “fuck” in a full-page newspaper ad to encourage safe sex.

The festival’s main sponsor pulled out of the 2002 edition, and it was touch-and-go whether the event would go ahead until the Eastern Cape provincial government intervened. This year, sponsorship was secured from the South African Broadcasting Corp., the provincial government, the National Arts Council, the National Lottery Fund and Standard Bank.

Fest director Lynette Marais attributes this year’s success to the increased funding and publicity obtained through the well-coordinated sponsorship.

Janice Honeyman, who last year directed festival hit “Nothing But the Truth” by John Kani, again produced a winner in “Madiba Magic,” using the medium of story theater to portray some of Nelson Mandela’s favorite African stories for children from the book of that name. Her imaginative use of unusual materials such as plastic bottles, beer cans and plastic bags for the set combined with striking costumes and lighting cast a spell on auds of all ages in a show which should have long legs.

Also well-received was Roy Sargeant’s first stage adaptation of “Cry, the Beloved Country,” premiered to coincide with the centenary year of author Alan Paton’s birth.

On the fringe, tickets were snapped up for “Baobabs Don’t Grow Here” by Fresco Theater, featuring Helen Iskander and James Cunningham as a childless gypsy couple who travel to Africa from Europe to find a baobab tree, which they believe will ensure fertility.

“Thuthula — Heart of the Labyrinth,” directed by Janet Buckland and written by Chris Mann, was another new work that pulled in auds and critical praise, even from the Xhosa chiefs who previously threatened to stop the play based on a period of their 200-year-old history because it was “like ‘The Bold & the Beautiful’ ” and “an embarrassment to the Xhosa nation.”

Marais said the success of this year’s event had encouraged organizers to look ahead with confidence to planning next year’s fest, which is expected to be “something special” since it coincides with the 10-year anni of South Africa’s democracy and host locale Rhodes U.’s centenary.

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