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Postconflict Nostalgia: Postapartheid South African Theatre, 1990-2010

Gibson A. Cima. "Postconflict Nostalgia: Postapartheid South African Theatre, 1990-2010." Diss. U of Washington, 2012.


In examining the aftermath of repressive regimes overthrown by democratic means, postapartheid South African theatre emerges as a compelling postconflict performance case study. Prior to the country's 1994 political transition, South Africa's protest theatre represented an efficacious, artistic, and critically-engaged political theatre, one that provoked audiences, critics, and theatre historians throughout the world. This protest theatre's triumphant history, and its development over nearly four decades, remains a well-studied aspect of twentieth century international theatre. Given the wealth of information concerning the South African theatre from 1948-1990, the comparative dearth of studies that assess the past two decades appears particularly conspicuous. Protest theatre's supposed postapartheid absence supplies the impetus for this dissertation, which charts the apparent disappearance of South African protest theatre after 1990 and the emergence on both national and international stages of a multifaceted postconflict theatre that explored the country's past and present while continuing to imagine its future.
From 1948 to 1990, South African oppositional theatre developed numerous strategies for countering apartheid. Theatre artists initially resisted apartheid through rhetorical devices, such as doublespeak, which addressed oppressors while delivering coded messages for fellow subalterns. By 1960, passive resistance transitioned into overt protest as practitioners fully articulated their deep longing for apartheid's end. I term this desire for reconciliation inherent in South African protest theatre: postconflict nostalgia. During the 1980s, South African theatre artists weaponized this postconflict nostalgia into militant agitprop works that toured the world, raising international awareness. Nelson Mandela's 1990 release from prison began four years of contentious negotiations between the ruling Afrikaner-led National Party (NP) and the oppositional African National Congress Party (ANC). The vibrant South African protest theatre seemed to wither even as it attained its ostensible objective--the collapse of apartheid.
The attention of international audiences, critics, and theatre scholars turned elsewhere, their apparent avoidance of postconflict subjects perhaps stemming from a melodramatic fixation on protest drama's inherent theatricality--its predetermined heroes and villains--rather than on the more complicated business of post-revolutionary nationbuilding. Instead of creative stagnation, this post-antiapartheid moment led to South African protest play revivals, productions of other nations' struggle dramas, and new works, reflecting the quite literally gray area between authoritarianism and democracy. As the majority ANC party sought to reconcile its bitterly-divided country through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the theatre began to (re)present the Commission. In doing so, South African theatre followed the Commission's journey from a nationbuilding tool to a global reconciliation model. Unlike antiapartheid drama, which relied on an artesian well of outrage, reconciliatory theatre proved unsustainable.
In the aftermath of the TRC, South African theatre embraced a variety of approaches and styles, ranging from popular musicals, stand-up comedy, and drag shows to Western dramas, plays addressing identity politics, and community theatre. Out of the wide assortment of performances that emerged after the commission, three key trends demonstrated the liberation struggle's continuity in the postapartheid era; these are: post-TRC protest theatre revivals, Theatre of Black Nationalism, and a group of avant-garde playwrights mixing African and Western styles into new storytelling forms. As more nations reach postconflict status, the need for viable, transportable models for postconflict resolution has increased. Postapartheid South African theatre's two-decade-long trajectory may provide such a model. Considering the country's democratic struggles through the theatre supplies a potentially useful methodology and set of criteria for the study of postconflict theatre in other emergent nations throughout the world.

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