25 Nov A Q&A with Ameera Conrad, the theatre maker questioning the future of SA
On Twitter, Ameera Conrad describes herself as “cocky AF” and if her new play is anything to go by, best you know she’s woke, unapologetic and outspoken when it comes to politics, feminism, identity and how she posits herself as a coloured Muslim womxn making theatre.
She’s one of the recipients of this year’s Young Directors Bursary and will be staging her latest work, ‘Reparations’, at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective. The play postulates what might happen in South Africa if we don’t deal with the burgeoning issues of economic inequality and asks audiences to consider their current political standpoints. We caught up with her during her final week of rehearsals to chat about true liberation, reparation and why she’d love the EFF to watch her work.
What made you pursue a career in theatre?
Initially, I wasn’t going to pursue a career in the arts. I was effectively on the path to becoming an engineer but changed paths at the end of grade 11. I was performing in the Shakespeare Schools’ Festival in 2010 at Wynberg Boys’ High (I went to Wynberg Girls’), we did a 30 minute version of Macbeth in which I played Lady Macbeth. After the show I was introduced to Chris Weare, who was then the director of the Little Theatre on Hiddingh and is now at AFDA, and he asked me what I was going to do with the rest of my life. When I told him that I was going into engineering he said I should consider a career in theatre. He gave me his email address and sent me info about UCT’s Theatre and Performance course, which really excited me. I had also met Tara Notcutt (who is also a Wynberg old girl) and she spoke to me about the Theatre Making course, which was eventually what I got accepted into.
Your new play is called ‘Reparation’. What does that term mean to you in our current context?
I think for me it’s about considering what is owed and to whom. People of colour in South Africa have been put on the back foot for centuries (and I think that’s putting it very mildly) and now we’re seeing a surge from marginalised groups to get back what was taken from them, and to reclaim their humanity. In a way it’s something that PoC shouldn’t even have to do – we shouldn’t have to reclaim our humanity. We should be seen as humans, but in many instances we’re still seen as secondary citizens. And this lack of change has resulted in a very valid anger, which is what we’re seeing now. ‘Reparation’ is really my attempt to show people what could possibly happen in the future of this country if we don’t genuinely attempt to fix the problems created in this country by colonialism, Apartheid, and neo-liberalism.
How would you describe the style of your work?
At this point my work is always an attempt on my part to deal with things that I’m personally struggling with, or trying to unpack. The way I see it is that, as a womxn of colour, I can’t be the only one struggling with certain things, so I always hope that in unpacking my own state of mind I’ll be able to connect with others. My aesthetic is very now, and kind of changes with the way my taste changes. My first production was a Romantic one-man show called ‘bloom’. But ‘Reparation’ is in a completely different realm, text-wise, style-wise, and aesthetically. I think my style is ever-changing, depending on the story that I feel the need to tell.
Being a recipient of the Young Directors Bursary includes a run at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective. What are some of the challenges of being a young theatre practitioner?
The biggest challenge for me right now is the money. And I think it’s not a challenge that’s specific to young theatre makers. There’s so little money to go around, and being a young theatre maker more often than not means that you’re less likely to get the funding. But I think that there’s a revolution in the theatre that’s currently happening, where young collectives of theatre makers aren’t allowing that to get in their way. We’re looking at one another and saying “Okay, if they don’t want to give us the money, if they don’t want to see our potential, then we will do it without them or their money”. And I think that comes from this neo-Black Consciousness movement that in a way gave birth to the various collectives. I’m part of one called The Furies, our aim is to make work about womxn and by womxn (particularly womxn of colour) and we work closely with groups like Age of the Artist and Hungry Minds Productions.
Tell us about the casting process. What were you looking for in each performer and what made you decide on the cast?
When I was writing the script, I had one or two actors in mind for some of the parts, but I was very aware that I wanted to have an open casting so that I could see actors that I didn’t necessarily know and give myself the experience of going through a casting process. I asked a friend and fellow actor, Oarabile Ditsele to assist me in the process. We spent an entire day in the back hall of the Theatre Arts Admin Collective auditioning actors for three of the roles (one of which I had already cast), and from there I cast the play. I think I’ve ended up with a cast of incredibly talented performers, who are also hardworking and very giving as actors. And that’s the most amazing thing for a young director, to have actors who want to give you things to work with and who don’t just wait for you to tell them what to do. I don’t think that’s what directing is about, and to be able to hone my craft with such a great group has been incredible.
You’re exceptionally vocal on Twitter when it comes to politics, feminism and identity. How does your political and cultural identity influence the work you create?
Yeah, my mom’s given me a few talking-to’s about my Twitter timeline. She says it’s going to get me in trouble one day. But really, when it comes to making theatre – especially in South Africa – I think it’s almost impossible to remove your cultural, sexual, racial or gender identity from the equation. For me all the plays I’ve written or been in have dealt with one of the various aspects of my identity and to try to separate those intersecting (and sometimes conflicting) identities from my work, which comes always from a very personal space, would be to deny my own truth. If that makes sense. I always consider what I stand for and what I represent as a coloured Muslim womxn making theatre, because I don’t represent only myself.
You Tweeted the EFF saying it would be a dream if they attended. Why’s that?
The political party in ‘Reparation’ (known in the play as The Party) is modelled on the same rhetoric as the EFF, and effectively it takes the theories upon which the EFF has been created and turns the intensity all the way up to 100. So for me it would be very interesting to have the EFF see the show which is about a potential outcome of this country. It’s not a critique of the EFF in particular, but all politics and all revolutionary radical entities, as well as liberal entities and institutions. I also have a massive crush on Mbuyiseni Ndlozi and I’d really like to meet him at some point. I think he’d like my work.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the play?
I’d like all audience members to leave with a new perspective of what the possible outcomes are for this country if we don’t fix the problems. The play is a red flag, a warning, and also a question, in a sense the big question I’m asking to audiences is: “Is this what you want? Is this the future you want?”
South Africa has a strong legacy of political theatre. If I were to say of a work that it’s a “political play” do you think I’d be missing something more nuanced, or would you say that subtlety is overrated and if so, why?
I think this is a political play in the sense that it critiques politics and politicians. It also critiques apolitical people, because honestly in this country we can’t afford to be apolitical anymore. We can’t afford to not want to think about it, or to not want to talk about it. I worry sometimes about where this country is headed, I wonder if I am necessarily down with everything that’s happening and at the same time I question why I’m hesitant for certain outcomes. I swing wildly between wanting a violent revolution and wanting to bury my head in the sand, but neither of those are useful in the bigger scheme of things. We definitely need to interrogate our political standpoints and I think this play is my way of trying to start some sort of interrogation.
Recent global events, like Trump being elected as president, demonstrate that perhaps the world is not as woke as we’d like to believe, and that white supremacy and privilege are sadly still very much alive. As a director, writer, feminist and actress what role do you think the arts play in combating these worldviews?
I think the arts are pivotal in changing ideas and opinions of the closed minded, or even of those who believe themselves to be open minded but actually aren’t. I think the most interesting thing to me about the kinds of people who vote for someone like Trump, is that their opinions are allowed to exist because they exist in echo chambers. If you live in a community where everyone thinks alike and believes that a certain group is to blame for your problems, then you’re bound to lash out when backed into a corner. I think the South African equivalent would be something along the lines of Afriforum or the English African Front (a group which called for the boycotting of ‘The Fall’). I think that theatre specifically has the opportunity to show people who don’t know what it’s like to be female, queer, of colour, trans, or whatever it may be, what it means to exist in a world which is designed to keep you back. ‘The Fall’ was testament to this ability, and I hope ‘Reparation’ can also open important dialogues.
What do you think young South Africans are preoccupied with now?
I think, at least for me and for the people who I work with and socialise with, the biggest preoccupation is true liberation. We want the equal country that Nelson Mandela promised us, we’re just at the point where we’re cashing in the cheques we were given. I’m obsessed with black (and I use this in the Biko sense) self-love and actualisation. I’m obsessed with telling our stories, which for so long haven’t been told. I’m obsessed with seeing different kinds of coloureds on stage – not just the singing-and-dancing or drug-taking-and-gang-killing ones.
Lastly, can we expect any new collaborations or work come 2017?
At this point ‘The Fall’ is going to be going to Woordfees, and hopefully Grahamstown Arts Fest. I’m also working with The Furies on a one-woman show that I’ll be performing in, Dara Kometz will be writing, and Kathleen Stephens will be directing. There are a few unconfirmed projects that I’m hoping will come into fruition, but it’s too early to tell. I’m also going to be in an episode of an American TV show called Blood Drive, which is set to premier early next year, which is exciting.
‘Reparation’ is on at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective from 27 November – 3 December.
Photography by Jess Kramer