Van Graan’s piercing gaze
by Diane De Beer
Production: My Fellow South Africans
Photos: Ryan Dammert and Karoo Kaarte
DIANE DE BEER enjoyed My Fellow South Africans earlier this year in Johannesburg and urges everyone to not miss it at the Woordfees.
Playwright Mike van Graan has the gift of casting his net, finding the right focus and then going in for the kill in the most devastating fashion.
But all of this is done with such skill and finesse that, even in those uncomfortable moments when you might be the target, you nod in agreement.
Yes, it is incredibly funny until it isn’t. And, sadly, in this country, it often isn’t. This time he has found a devastating target – the upcoming elections. With the unravelling of the country so visible in the Eskom fiasco which just keeps going, never letting up, his audience (and it was packed to the rafters on opening night) are rooting all the way. We have all suffered enough and there’s often a collective sigh.
Thirty years into our post-apartheid democracy, he tells us, our country is in desperate need of change, a reset, a re-imagining of the dream we had some three decades ago. And then he reveals the real purpose of the play: everyone agrees that the elections in 2024 offer an opportunity for the beginning of new beginnings, hence My Fellow South Africans, which he describes as his modest contribution to the discourse that may shape the elections, reflecting us back to ourselves, reminding us of our optimism, and finally urging us ‘to do something’.
And while he is humble in his aspirations, Van Graan has been doing this for most of his playwriting life, showing us who we are and just how much we are willing to take. Through the years, he has fine-tuned what he says and how to say it, and in this instance also gathered the perfect coterie of stage chums with whom he has collaborated on three one-person revues: Rob van Vuuren (director) and Daniel Mpilo Richards (performer but in this instance also director) who also brought the star of this show, Kim Blanche Adonis, on board.
Taking over from Richards is no small ask and for the shortest time while acclimatising to her particular style, I wasn’t sure she was going to crack it – until she did with sheer determination, style, skill and an exuberant performance that never let up.
The text is dense, the demands on the actor intense, but she has taken this on with a will and willingness to make it her own. There’s nothing she’s not going to do to make a character work and her deftness with accents, complete comfort on stage and constant chameleon-like changes are astonishing. Van Graan has found a warrior for his sharpest words.
And as the audience, you have to tune in too. It’s fast and furious, and the writer doesn’t tread lightly as he flies fiercely through the South African landscape, demolishing everything he witnesses in a land that’s punch drunk as it faces one disaster after the other.
Just before the show I was listening to a news report on the BRICS summit which revealed that the Chinese had gifted us R500 million, but it went on to report, R170 million had already disappeared! I can just imagine what Van Graan would do with that.
He wishes us a cathartic experience and it is that, but what I love the most is the way he lets rip with words and worries, always funny but never at the expense of the catastrophe of what has happened to this country we had such hopes for. He is piercingly honest. It’s not always possible to laugh and at some moments the spotlight on those of us who are born with privilege just because of the colour of a skin is vicious, as it should be.
Yes, he is there to entertain, and with the smarts of Adonis, it is just that, but he never turns away, softens the blow or shies away from making a point whatever the target might be. This is about our country, making the right choices and going into action rather than simply complaining.
Van Graan carries the moniker cultural activist because that is exactly what he does with all the skill of both his perceptive and piercing gaze and his writing wizardry.
It’s a blast!