Bayeza | Feminist stage: Playwrights Ameera Conrad and Amy Jephta make ‘Black girl magic’

Bayeza 2017 – 10and5 Top 10 celebrates 10 individuals and collectives through the lens of exchange and dialogue; intergenerationally and between peers. From in-depth interviews to profiles and videos, we document the dialogues between young, up-and-comers making their mark on the creative industry, and established ones leaving indelible impressions on South Africa’s cultural scene.

On stage at the University of Cape Town’s Little Theatre sit consummate artists Ameera Conrad and Amy Jephta. They are two playwrights with different lived experiences and a similar passion: making theatre and telling stories about powerful women. Currently, Ameera is rehearsing for her satire, Reparation, which is on its way to this year’s National Arts Festival. And at night, she performs at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre in her award-winning production, The Fall. Amy, on the other hand, lectures at UCT’s drama department and finds time to write and direct theatre and film, such as her upcoming movies, Soldaat and The Story of Ellen Pakkies.

It’s on this stage at Hiddingh Campus, six years ago for Ameera and 11 for Amy that they first began their studies in theatre and performance. The empty Little Theatre is a place of common memory and provides a few moments of reflection.

During her final year at UCT in 2015, Ameera was in the thick of #RhodesMustFall and part of the team of students who co-edited the #ShutItDown edition of the Cape Argus, which chronicled the #FeesMustFall movement and highlighted the broader struggles for equality. At the time, Amy was already teaching at UCT and experienced the effects of the movement as a lecturer.

Between voice and theatre-making classes, they studied the great dramatists and local legends; Shakespeare, John Kani, Barney Simon, Andrew Buckland, Mbogeni Ngema, Anton Checkov, Konstantin Stanislavski and many other men. Texts by local women dramatists like Reza de Wet and Nadia Davids appeared, but male artists outnumbered them. By the mere virtue of doing what they love, Amy and Ameera attempt to correct this inequality by creating work that tells nuanced stories of strong womxn characters.

Amy, who is a greatly accomplished theatre practitioner – some of her achievements include being the president of Women Playwrights International and receiving a Fleur du Cap nomination for best script for Krystalvlakte – tends to work behind the scenes, while Ameera is more outspoken about her work on platforms such as social media. This contrast in personality filters into their writing style. Ameera’s plays are overtly political and brazen, whereas Amy’s are no less political, but more suggestive in their approach.

Reparation, written and directed by Ameera, asks: How will the debt of apartheid be repaid? When a new party comes into power led by a woman, the Supreme Cadre, it calls for a blood sacrifice to achieve true transformation. The work asserts that a flimsy, neo-liberal approach to reconciliation does not undo the bloodshed or make right the economic equality caused by apartheid.

Amy’s recent play, Krystalvlakte, which was commissioned as part of the Suid-Ooster-Fees last year, explores the gang wars perpetuated on the Cape Flats. Based on Bertolt Brecht’s, Mutter und Ihre Kinder, she portrays the reality of life on the Flats – through nuanced dialogue and language – and reveals the great lengths a mother will go to keep her children alive amidst the violence.

Despite differences in style, their careers share similarities. Both are published playwrights, have been awarded the TAAC Emerging Director’s Bursary, and Ameera unintentionally follows Amy’s footsteps by participating in this year’s Lincoln Centre Theatre’s Director’s Laboratory in New York.

Ameera worked on Krystalvlakte and has been exposed to Amy’s work in professional and academic settings. While they’re yet to write a play together, Amy has imparted valuable insights about opportunities and funding to help Ameera prepare for her trip to the Big Apple.

The two exchange ideas about writing and directing for South African film and theatre.

We’re sitting here on the Little Theatre stage. What memories come to mind?
I have so many silly memories of this department – people falling into the trapdoor and things like that. My favourite thing about studying drama was able to tell stories that came from my perspective. As a Muslim woman from Cape Town, there’s very little that you see of yourself on stage – unless it’s a District Six or a Marc Lottering show.

My favourite memory was getting to do a monologue from Nadia Davids’ At Her Feet as one of my exam pieces. It was the first time at drama school I was able to pick something that came from my own personal context, as opposed to a Shakespeare or a Berkoff.

Amy: I feel like the stage has seen me at every stage of my life. The first time I stepped on a stage was in February 2006, that was the beginning of orientation week of my first year of drama school, and we gathered in the Little Theatre. I remember being nervous and unsure but confident that I’d chosen the right path.

If you could travel back in time to your drama school days, what advice would give yourself?
It’s okay to not know everything, be out of your depth and ask for help, which I didn’t do for a while in first and second year. I tried to take on a lot of work myself. In third and fourth year, I came back into myself. I realised who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to make as an artist and creative.

Amy: To be sure that you’ve chosen the right thing. To be confident – as scary as it feels – that there is a path and trajectory. Obviously, you can’t see into the future, but you’re going to end up sticking with and loving this thing that you’ve chosen to do.

What kinds of stories do you hope to tell?
That’s changed as I’ve gone through various phases. At the beginning, when I started writing for theatre, my whole aim was to tell universal stories. I think that came out of the frustration from the expectation of being a woman of colour, and feeling I had to speak for a certain part of society. Now, I’m at the stage where my politics, my experience and my body is part of my work. I want to be able to tell stories that reflect other people like me. I write for brown people, for women of colour.

Ameera: Stories about powerful women, that’s the basis of everything I want to talk about. There is so much to brown and black women that doesn’t get spoken about.

You’re both vocal about being feminists. How does this lens shape your work?
I can’t help but make feminist work. I can’t divorce my sex and the way I identify my gender from my work. A feminist lens has shaped a lot of how I create women characters and the kinds of things that they do and don’t say.

Ameera: I think that my work is entirely shaped by my subjectivity. My race, gender and religious politics all in some way come into play in my work. I always try to make work that has strong female characters. I always feel like there are not enough of them, particularly strong black women characters. One of the reasons why I make theatre is so that women actresses can feel powerful on stage.

You’ve seen each other’s plays. What do you make of each other’s work?
I look at Ameera’s work and think it is bolder than I have the guts to be. Her work has a lot of balls to it. That’s what has impressed me the most about Ameera’s works.

Ameera: I’ve worked on one of Amy’s plays, Krystalvlakte. Amy always manages to represent people in very delicate, nuanced ways – in her writing and her directing. In Krystalvklate, you weren’t getting a typical Cape Coloured gangster. Everyone was nuanced.

Ameera, you’re busy with The Fall at The Baxter. Can you tell us about the production?
The Fall started in 2015. The acting students at the UCT drama department did a Barney Simon season, and Black Dog-Inj’emnyama! was then picked up by the Baxter. Lara Foot, the chief executive of Baxter, thought if we could so eloquently tell the stories of 1976, why couldn’t we, for the 40 year anniversary of 1976, tell the story about what’s was happening on our campuses.

She and Claire Stopford, the director of Black Dog-Inj’emnyama!, orchestrated and facilitated our process of The Fall. I was initially brought on as a theatre maker to assist with the writing and directing process, but because there were so few coloured women actresses in my year, we then thought let’s have a coloured woman narrative, and that’s how I became one of the performers as well.

How have audiences responded to the work?
Ameera: Performing it has been interesting because the first time we did, it was in the middle of the student protests in 2016. At the Baxter, we had to walk through private security, and then there was a point when it shut down completely, and we were the only people still working there.

We wondered if people were going to boycott the play because we looked like sell-outs. Technically the whole university was supposed to be shut down. We had organised with the Baxter to give UCT students free tickets to the previews so they could come and see and spread the word. After all, the play was dedicated to UCT Students who were fighting towards decolonisation and free education.

Is inter-generational conversations encouraged in the Cape Town’s theatre industry?
Not often enough. I feel like a lot of people are not as generous with their time and resources as they could be. Even for me, I’ve struggled to find people to attach myself to. I don’t think it happens often enough, and people underestimate the importance of having those conversations. And, keeping in contact with colleagues who are not your immediate peers.

Do you have any mentors? If so, what have you learned from them so far, and how have they shaped your career?
At drama school, my mentor was Mark Fleishman. He’s always questioning everything; why do you want to do this? Why do you want to do it like this? It’s made me question myself a lot deeper and investigate and interrogate my choices when I write or direct things.

Amy: I don’t have a specific set of mentors. I try to draw a little bit from everyone. So I have people I look to for how they conduct their lives and keep everything in balance. Then I have people who I look to for the artistic stuff – for what they produce, and the aesthetic of the work they make.

Amy, you’re also a lecturer at the UCT drama department. Did you ever think you would teach at the institution you studied at?
No, I didn’t. It’s interesting and exciting to be an artist in academia. To have the support and to be held by the academic framework, and to be able to think through your work in an intellectual way and practice it at the same time is great. There’s a lot of supporting other people’s creative work, which is something I love doing, but that often means my practice has to go on the back burner while I supervise a student, teach theatre-making and support other people as their careers get started.

The easiest and best way to learn a subject is to teach it. You can’t help but take those teachings into your practice. There’s something about seeing young people starting to make work and think about working. I have to interrogate them, to ask questions, and those are the same things I throw back at myself. I’m not a consummate artist in any sense of the word, so as I’m teaching, I am also being taught. There is something about that feedback loop that touches your work and hopefully strengthens and improves it.

If you had to create a production together, what would it be about?
Black girl magic. It would be for brown women.

Amy: It would be a celebration. There is so much nuance to our stories.

Photography: Gabriella Achadinha

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