Illa Thompson
Mercury Column 112
February 2018
The joy of art, in whatever form, is for the viewer / reader to become immersed into an alternative narrative; to visit another reality for a while and to experience, through artistic engagement; another world view.
Much like Lewis Carroll’s Alice who ventured into another world down the Rabbit Hole and into Wonderland, art allows us to live vicariously through imagined participation in the experience of others.
When reading glorious Zimbabwean novelist Petina Gappah’s evocative Rotten Row, I can feel and see the noisy streets, bustling hair salon and death-wish taxis which she so masterfully describes.
It was chosen as a “Book of the Day” by The Guardian, whose reviewer FT Kola concluded: “Rotten Row hums with life, and it delivers one of the keenest and simplest pleasures fiction has to offer: a feeling of true intimacy, of total immersion, in situations not our own, in the selves of others. In its strongest moments, we want to stay there. Gappah has achieved the difficult task of rendering places some of her readers may never know or visit with such intimacy and aliveness that they feel instantly familiar.”
This description of the novel particularly resonated with me last weekend when a friend and I road-tripped to Jozi to see two remarkable stage productions back-to-back: The Color Purple at the Joburg theatre – the acclaimed musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s watershed novel of a poor pregnant 14 year old girl and her desperate, inspiring unforgettable journey of triumph and love.
We also caught the drama, One Night in Miami, at the Market Theatre – Kemp Powers’ fictional account of an evening shared by four African-American icons: a delighted Cassius Clay, newly crowned heavyweight champion of the world contemplating conversion to Islam; soul singer Sam Cooke; famous football player and budding movie star, Jim Brown and a youthful Malcom X, feisty political icon who was at odds with the Nation of Islam. The production looks at the notion of brotherhood and the bounds of friendship, faith and ideology.
Both productions honour Black History Month and provide a valuable glimpse into important African-American historical narratives in which the political becomes personal. Both productions reminded me that, irrespective of time and place, culture or language – the connections formed by shared experiences bind us – be it the bonds of family, faith, philosophy, community or shared dreams.
Providing a similar opportunity closer to home was the astonishing, moving and profoundly brilliant Last Country – created by the all women-cast under the guidance of theatre wunderkind Neil Coppen and his muse Mpume Mtombeni together with Kira Irwin from DUT’s Urban Futures Centre whose verbatim interviews provided the source material. It is an original production, a heart-wrenching drama about the lives of four migrant women in Durban, and the challenges they face to survive in a hostile world and strive to integrate themselves into our city. It was created and performed last year at the Denis Hurley Centre as a collaboration between DUT’s Urban Futures Centre and Empatheatre who also created the 2016 play Ulwembu about street drug users in Durban.
For the duration of Coppen’s harrowing and beautiful production, I gained a tiny glimpse into the reality of a displaced woman seeking out a living in an unfamiliar, unforgiving place.
In a country in-which we are increasingly wary of people who are different from ourselves, it is vital to be invited to experience other realities, so that what is perhaps scary and strange can become familiar and less-intimidating. It is only when we realise the enormity of the threads which bind us, can we begin to empathise, share and heal together.
• Readers can still catch a free performance of Last Country on Saturday 24 February at 12 noon and 3pm at KCAP in Kwa-Mashu.

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