Missions at the National Arts Festival: A Recap

It’s trip diary time! (FINALLY)

28 June – Arrival in Grahamstown

After the 15 hour bus drive from Johannesburg, I arrived in town full of a mix of excitement, anxiety and nostalgia. What would the place I was staying at be like? How would I find the festival? Was I going to be okay on my own? Will Grahamstown be anything like I remember, from those few nights spent here on a school trip in high school?

I was feeling pretty adventurous (so completely out of character), so I typed the address for Rhodes University into Google Maps, and started walking. I walked through town wheeling my suitcase behind me and feeling weighed down by the backpack and handbag that I was carrying around with me, feeling determined to make getting there all by myself the first thing to do on my list of how to make the most of the experience. Well, that didn’t go as well as I thought it would. I ended up calling a taxi, having trouble telling the driver where to find me, asking a local for some sort of direction that still didn’t help, and fielding a call from home about whether or not I had arrived safely, all while struggling with all the aforementioned luggage while going uphill. Grahamstown is pretty much all uphill. 

I eventually got to Rhodes University, and to Oriel House, where I would be staying. I showered and napped, and then got up to try and find my way to the first show I had planned to watch- Roel Twijnstra’s interpretation of the Zakes Mda novel The Madonna of Excelsior.
My mistake here was thinking that I could follow the road signs and arrows and make it to the Settlers Monument to fetch my tickets. It becomes quite clear that you’re lost when you find yourself walking on the side of a highway, past the “welcome to Grahamstown” sign, with no real idea of how far you are from where you’re supposed to be. So, I gave up on that mission and went back to Oriel. I missed the show, and the next day I realised that there a taxi’s going up and down all the time during the festival, so there’s really no need for me to stress about finding venues or being on time for things.

29 June

It’s my first full day, and I was ready. What I was not ready for, is the way some man tried to get my number at breakfast. I mean, I didn’t come here to make friends, and I definitely was not looking to add someone’s father to my WhatsApp contacts. Seriously. I won’t be able to eat cereal without remembering that violation for a while… 
Yes, yes- an argument can be made for allowing people to “appreciate beauty”, but must you appreciate it so aggressively, at an inappropriate time, and after pointing out the last person you tried to “appreciate”, mentioning how it “didn’t work out”? Things like this make me lose hope in humanity.

Anyway. I got a taxi up to the Settlers Monument- I remember it well from the high school trip, and seeing as it is the central point for all festival business, I feel much more in control of my agenda now. More so when I finally have my tickets in my hand, and I figure out where the venue for Rainbow Scars is. 
It was billed as “a powerful exploration of some of the complexities of contemporary South African relationships, layered with dollops of humour”, and that was what the audience got when Terry Norton, Ketrice Maitisa and Mbulelo Grootboom took to the stage. 

It is a story about the questions of identity that a young black girl finds herself asking when she confronts the contradicting realities of living as part of the “rainbow nation” of the new South Africa. As a Xhosa girl who was adopted into a white family shortly after the birth of democracy, Lindi has had a superior education, access to better opportunities and learned to live with an optimistic mindset, but she is still part of a family of less privileged people from a township on the outskirts of Cape Town. When a relative from this family reaches out to her, Lindi has to answer some difficult questions about who she is, where her loyalties lie, and what her values really are. 

As actors, Terry and Ketrice have a really impressive connection. They work so well together to tell the story of the play in a very natural way- they came off like any regular mother and daughter. Along with Mbulelo, they acted with such conviction and professionalism that watching the show was quite a pleasure. It was exactly the calibre of performance that I’m sure people come to the Festival to see, and I commend the writer and the director for that. 

30 June

It’s my second full day in Grahamstown, and I’ve realised that travelling alone is actually not that bad. On arrival, get all the maps you might need and work out a central point from which to start missions each day, and you’re sorted. 

Today’s missions led me to the Monument, where I saw If I Knew, a show presented by first year university students from the CPUT Performing Arts Group in which they talk about the “culture shock” they experienced when they first got to school. The performance was about as good as can be expected from non-actors, and in general the point of the story came across. 
There were a few funny moments, but the shift in the tone that was brought about by the girl who came out to recite (read: shout out) a poem to tie up the story was so awkward that it had me struggling to stifle my laughter. I am such a critical (i.e. unfair) audience sometimes. Oh well. 

I decided staying in at night wasn’t really making the most of my time in town, so I was glad to make plans to meet up with my cousin (I love it when I unexpectedly bump into people I know on holiday!) and we went to The Rat andParrot
“The Rat”, as it is affectionately known by the locals and the Rhodents, is a sports pub/restaurant/dancehall that is the place to be on almost any night in Grahamstown.
It has a great atmosphere, the pricing is reasonable, and the pizza will *actually change your life. I thought people were exaggerating, but the Chicken Tikka, the Bacovian (with bacon, avo and feta), and the Smoky Chicken pizzas are amazing. Debonair’s is good, but The Rat makes hearty pizza, and that always wins.

1 July

Today is the day I have been looking forward to the most, because I’m seeing The Island at the Rhodes Theatre. The Island is a play about two political prisoners on Robben Island by John Kani, Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard- three of South Africa’s theatre legends. 
Ramabulana and Kani as Winston and John

I had read it in class earlier this year, so I was keen to see how it looked on stage. With Atandwa Kani (from Soul Buddyz and those dry cider ads on TV) and Nat Ramabulana (currently on Rhythm City) in the roles of John and Winston respectively, the execution of this play was spectacular. I always love seeing a text that I have studied brought to life in performance, especially when it is done so well. 

I am so impressed by the range that the actors showed- working on TV does not always show how talented an actor is- and I am excited to see their upcoming stage collaborations this year. I was particularly taken by the way that Atandwa stepped so confidently into the shoes of his father, the original writer and actor, and an absolute force in South African theatre and television. He handled the pressure and expectation which I am sure come with being thespian royalty with an impressive ease. I loved it. I hope to see Nat acting in a lot more serious stuff from now on- I was pleasantly surprised by his talent.

After the engaging, insightful discussion with the actors and John Kani (who was recently awarded a doctorate by NMMU, and got a standing ovation just for walking onto stage), I went back up to the Monument because I thought that was where the Wits SDLU’s production,  In/Sight  was going to be. 
Unfortunately for me, I was on totally the wrong side of town, and I had to take a festival hopper (genius idea: R5 for a trip to or from any of the venues for the duration of the Festival) down into town. I really had no idea where I was going- I just hoped it wouldn’t be too far from where the taxi would stop. I found the Masonic Hall by a pure stroke of luck and with a little help from the festival gods: while I was asking the driver about the venue and thinking I might just skip the show if I can’t find the venue, we drove right past a big sign pointing to the hall and I got off right there at the curb. 

I enjoyed In/Sight a lot: the Wits SDLU really put a lot of effort into the production about human beings and their vices, and how nothing is ever as it seems. The cast was made up entirely of amateur actors- a deliberate decision made by the directors, in an effort to show how important it is for people to challenge themselves and develop skills that are outside of their "comfort zone. Their performances were quite impressive- which shows that you really can do whatever you set your mind to
With Tony Miyambo (of Relativity fame) involved, though, I wouldn’t expect anything less. 

I was so sad to hear that Merriam and the Chapter Untitled crew had to pull out of the Festival at the last minute! Apparently, they had financial difficulties and could no longer participate. I filled the evening with a comedy show instead, at a venue further down into town (not too far from the Masonic, thankfully), Scout Hall. KG Mokgadi’s stand-up comedy show Heavy was worth the ticket. I am sure I will be seeing his name on comedy bills in the near future.

 2 July 

Today is my last day in town, and I am feeling a little blue because Grahamstown has grown on me. I have to come back next year.
The last day is dedicated to going back to the stalls that I was eyeing at theTransnet Village Green and seeing a little bit more of the town (or city, since a place that has its own cathedral is officially a city, even if it does seem a little small). 
I got a pair of earrings from Marjorie Human's craft store, Muga Muga and I wished so much that I could take some of the vintage dresses and lapis lazuli rings I saw at the other stalls home with me. 

I went for lunch in town, and on my way back to campus I bumped into Sabu Mdee! I was so glad to meet the girl behind Life Times and Haberdashery and All ThatHaberdash, because I have loved her blogs for about two years now. It was good to see the person behind the tweets and the conversations in the blog comments sections in the flesh- she is not as intimidating as the pictures make her look.  
I hope she wins the Glamour Style Blogger Starter competition, because more people need to realise how talented she is! 

Overall, I had a great first trip to the National Arts Festival, and I would definitely recommend it. I hope I make it back next year.  


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