‘Delightful & beautiful’: South African play explores art & the trauma of loss
“Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking,” an award-winning play inspired by the stories of refugee children, has been performed around Africa, and in Europe, Asia and South America. It will premiere in the United States at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Rand Theater.
From the Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Barundi and other parts of South Africa, the refugee children told their “Suitcase Stories,” part of an art therapy research project that helped them come to terms with what they’d experienced while walking to Johannesburg, seeking sanctuary
The stories told of their journeys, of the lives these children had left behind and of the struggles they carried within themselves, just like the artwork tucked away into each of the suitcases they’d been given for the art therapy project. It was all reflected in Glynis Clatchery’s 2008 book, “The Suitcase Stories: Refugee Children Reclaim their Identities.”
Those stories, like those of the estimated 150,000 registered and millions of unregistered refugees now believed to be in South Africa, helped inspire “Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking,” an award-wining play by South Africa’s Magnet Theater.
The play, which has collected awards as it’s traveled around Africa, and to Europe, Asia and South America, will have its American premiere at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Rand Theater, located in the Fine Arts Building, Wednesday through Saturday, Jan. 30 through Feb. 2, all at 8 p.m.
With only two actors — Magnet co-founder Jennie Rezneck and Faniswa Yisa, who play mother-and-daughter exiles as well as other roles —“Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking” celebrates the human capacity to heal and to regain dignity and identity through the power of imagination. It’s told using Magnet’s signature “physical theater” approach, which applies movement and minimal language to tell of displacement, identity, relationships, suffering and freedom.
“Physical theater,” Rezneck explains in a video embedded on Magnet’s Web site, “asks people to engage imaginatively with images,” just as the performers on the spare, imaginative set interact in dancelike movements and play with the few precious objects left in their characters’ lives.
“It’s a challenge … We always try to find the conversation between the internal and personal landscape, and the external social and political landscape, so although the piece is about refugees, (we can) only enter the world of refugees through our own imaginations,” she says. “But also, through connecting with personal losses, which are something everybody’s experienced.”
In that way, Rezneck says, although the play is specifically about to refugees, it’s also about loss and recovery in a way that’s basic to every human being. “It’s something that everybody’s experienced. We connect into the story through a particular personal pathway.”
Megan Lewis, the UMass theater professor responsible for bringing Magnet to the Pioneer Valley as part of the theater department’s 40th anniversary season, calls the company’s work “physically based, imagistic theater that’s delightful and beautiful to watch, that’s compelling, and really moves you and allows to get you close to political subjects without bashing you over the head with them.”
Lewis, who specializes in the theater of her native South Africa, first saw “Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking” at the South Africa’s 2007 National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown and was so “absolutely blown away” that she canceled plans to see another play there and immediately returned to re-experience this two-woman tour de force.
“Since last year, I’ve been raising money, begging and going on my knees, singing the praises of Magnet Theater,” says Lewis, who is co-editing a book about the South African company. “I’m so grateful.”
Magnet, which will also be bringing along Director Mark Fleishman, as well as composer-musician Neo Muyananga and a technician, has seen dramatic changes in South Africa since its founding 25 years ago — “seismic changes in its political and social landscape,” says Lewis in her program notes.
Fleishman explains that “Every Day I am Walking” is not only about a geographical loss of place, but about the deeper losses we feel in an era when migration is very much a part of our 21st century lives.
And, he adds, “This piece is very intent on raising the possibility that the arts have a role to play in dealing with the trauma of loss.”
It’s typical of Magnet’s work, Lewis observes: creating art out of a lengthy, from-the-ground-up process.
With “Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking,” the company explores the kind of forced migration and prejudices that plague South Africa in the “post apartheid, post-colonial, post modern, post-everything kind of world,” Lewis says.
The play, commissioned by the African Festival for Children and Young People in Cameroon, where it was first performed in November 2006, grew out of workshops that looked at how globalization, migration and other potent issues affected the lives of human beings on a daily basis.
(If the play’s characters are on the move, “Every Day I am Walking has itself been busy traveling, with tours through Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, Zambia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, as well as Great Britain, Germany Sweden, Denmark, Argentina, Brazil, India, Japan and elsewhere .)
The play, which Magnet’s longest-running, also draws on the violently xenophobic attacks on Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa within a decade of its overthrow of the 45-year-apartheid system.
The country, which has had a history of attracting economic refugees from throughout the continent seeking work and a better life, saw its border with Zimbabwe collapse after those seeking asylum began fleeing the despotic regime of President Robert Mugabe in the last decade. The refugee crisis resulted in gruesome, violent attacks on “amakwerekwere,” a pejorative term for “foreigners” in Johannesburg. Native South Africans used the same apartheid-era tactics they’d themselves experienced, like “necklacing” victims with a gasoline-filled tires, which are then set on fire.
“They’ve made this massive transition out of a horrible system like apartheid, and many people think they’re in a new democracy and think this is all great, with everyone getting along and is everything fine. But it isn’t,” Lewis explains.
A more complex role
Fleishman says that instead of the theater making statements that resisted the apartheid regime, its role now is more complex.
“The theater and the arts become a space where people can deal with personal issues and social issues, and issues that affect communities, on a much more intimate level,” the director says.
In addition to its presentation of what Lewis calls “polished productions,” Magnet has also been working with youth in outlying communities and townships outside Capetown around the theme of migration and movement, exploring storytelling and theater as a way of dealing with social issues.
The theater company’s members, she says, “are so committed intellectually, emotionally, and in every other way, to the well being of every community they work with, using tools they have as artists, bringing them to people who may not know of theater, or may not have thought of using theater to voice their stories.”
The company’s week-long residency at UMass, in addition to the four evening performances, will also be highlighted with a free lecture, open to the public Tuesday, Jan. 29, from 4 to 6:30 p.m. at Rand Theater: “Magnet’s Theatrical Labors in South Africa.” There will also be a 4 p.m. lecture Wednesday, Jan. 30, at 4 p.m., by Fleishman. Free and open to the public, it will be at Amherst College’s Stim Auditorium. The topic will be “Lapsing into Democracy Un(der)speaking Theater in the Transitional State.”
On Wednesday, Jan. 30, there will be a post-performance lecture by UMass English Professor Jenny Spencer in Rand Theater, as well as a post-performance lecture there on Friday, Feb. 1, by Lewis.
It’s “pure coincidence,” Lewis says, that the South African theater company is in residence at UMass in the same week that Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the country’s legendary Grammy Award-winning a capella chorus, is presenting a concert Wednesday, Jan. 30, in the Fine Arts Center concert hall.
“It’s going to be,” she observes, “South Africa all week.”
On the Web: www.magnettheatre.co.za
Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.
“Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking,” Rand Theater, Fine Arts Center, 151 Presidents Drive, Amherst. Wednesday through Saturday, Jan. 30 through Feb. 2, all at 8 p.m. Tickets are $16; seniors and students $8.
To order online, and to get more information, go to www.umass.edu/theater/magnet.php
To buy tickets by phone, with VISA or MasterCard, call the Fine Arts Center Box Office at 413-545-2511 or 1- 800-999-UMAS, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., while the university is in session. You can also visit the Box Office, located at the Fine Arts Center concert hall, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. while the university is in session, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. otherwise.
The box office is also open one hour prior to each ticketed event. Parking is available in the visitor’s parking lot next to the Robsham Visitor’s Center on Massachusetts Avenue.