Rock to the Core: cracking the foundations

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

Mamela Nyamza’s work is disruptive and provocative and alienating, sometimes ugly, sometimes unbearable in its unrelenting purpose, always hard-hitting.

It’s not easy to watch four women in garish, clashing outfits and stiletto heels carefully side-stepping and back-stepping, keeping in line for what seems ages. Mostly because they have knives in their mouths. One wrong step, one slip… someone’s getting hurt. The knives are muzzles too, muffling the instructions and guidance the women give each other. It’s dangerous to speak. Talk too loudly, enunciate too clearly – it can hurt you.

The symbolism is clear, given what the work is about: “rock[ing] the art fraternity to the core” states the programme note. And of course, the birth of the work: a protest at the Fleur du Cap awards led by Mamela Nyamza with Chuma Sopotela, Zikhona Jacobs, and Buhlebezwe Siwani. Their reason? Only 22 of the 74 nominated Fleur du Cap artists were black.

Are those awards a microcosm of the larger industry issue in considering what makes it to the mainstream? What attracts paying audiences? What gets bums on seats?

On stage, on repeat, we hear this collage of overlapping phrases. White guilt. Black Struggles. Black pain. White master. White awards. Black actors. Black theatres. White producers. White theatres. White funders. Witkak. The Great White.

Don’t speak out about the hand that feeds for fear of being ostracised and excluded.

Rock to the Core hints at – no, blurts out that – something sinister lurks in the dark underbelly of the South African arts industry.

Who cares who schmoozed who to get ahead. Hustlers operate in every industry in the world. But how many local theatre-makers are making a lucrative living from only their staged work? Without teaching on the side. Without doing ads or corporate events. The bills need paying though! Unless you’ve got Privilege Finance, funding grants are the only way for most to make work.

Get ready to navigate a complicated floorplan of twisted hoops and loops… fundraising is a thorny maze requiring a lot more than an internet connection. Everyone’s got wifi, right?

The machete is swung in all directions. The white hoity-toity of the arts elite might feel the wounds of being mocked with the kitsch glitz of sparkling hosiery and dazzling diamante necklaces. And the recipient of the “most obedient monkey” award will surely feel the sting of being likened to wine farm workers being forced to accept wine for pay.

Rock to the Core has a specific purpose. With tongue-in-cheek, dark and acidic humour, it rattles the gilded cages of SA’s theatre sweethearts, the ‘white’ (safe) spaces, and the perceptions of what ‘makes’ excellence. Which are also dictated by the USA capitalist, consumerist shit on the box – all the ‘Got Talent’ sell-your-integrity shows. It’s not only South Africa suffering from a bastardised idea of entertainment but we do have the added pressure of giving funders (and audiences) what they want – a skewed idea of an Africa rescued thanks to cultural and arts activities. Check the boxes. Community outreach. Check the boxes. Black empowerment. Check the boxes. ‘Development’, ‘marginalised voices’, ‘the girl-child’, ‘opportunity’… all dressed in bright costumes and happy, smiling faces.

Watch the work and see how you feel. Rock to the Core, I suspect, might have mixed reviews but will have strong reactions.

That’s what happens when you watch Nyamza’s work. She stirs the pot and lets that can of rotten worms spill out all over the place.

  • Rock to the Core is on tonight, 24 September at 18.00. Last chance to see it at the Cape Town Fringe. Click here for bookings and information.

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