Dame Janet Suzman’s response to DeObia Oparei’s letter

By ArtHouse Crouch End, 10 Jan 2015

JanetSuzman

 

Dame Janet Suzman has written to the ArtHouse responding to the letter by DeObia Oparei that we published on 26th of December 2014, which you can read here.

 

This letter is by way of a response to some foolishly careless remarks made by me, reported in The Guardian some 4 weeks ago. I am hoping that the brou-haha as died down a little by now so that this quiet, if belated, apology can take place. I stand humbly corrected by the righteous passion and anger of DeObia Oparei’s broadside (26th December). I have offered an apology to my South African friends some time ago, so mortified was I, but a UK response, I see, is called for.

 

In the reported remarks, the missing word, which might have saved a streak of my bacon, was the word ‘London’. The journalist interviewing me on the phone was asking my views on Meera Syall’s comment that not enough people of colour seem to attend theatre in this town. (Syall was playing at The Olivier at the NT at the time). The journalist omitted the defining word ‘London’ theatre in her article.

 

London theatre is indeed largely attended by whites, but who is surprised by that? London theatre has a 450 year old tradition stretching way back to the actor/poet who arguably invented human beings in his plays rather than gods and heroes. Obviously I refer to William Shakespeare, and I hope I’ll be forgiven if at this point I avoid entering the lists of lit.crit. about his cornucopeia of fragile three-dimensional characters with conflicted natures. [I would refer the curious to the eminent critic Harold Bloom’s “The Invention of the Human Being” for further material]. In my off-the-cuff answers to the journalist, I was referring to that particular culture of text-based theatre characteristic of London’s Bankside in the Tudor and Jacobean era, and which changed the face of written drama from then on, and in whose tradition the West stands today.

 

The same happened with the ‘DNA’ phrase. Of course I meant ‘cultural DNA’ which is current phraseology, not ever to be taken literally, and wholly unscientific – how could it be else? My understanding of the biological sciences may be sketchy but is not that crude. London has a long history of theatre-going, as does New York. Maybe Chicago, maybe Berlin too but I don’t have the statistics. It is what tourists and Londoners expect of London: theatre 365 days a year. That’s what I was meaning, but it was unforgiveably careless on my part not to make that cultural trajectory clear.

 

Thus the apology I refer to above is that the absence of that defining word of place appeared to give the impression that the whole of world drama from the beginning of recorded time was ‘white’. How could anyone in their right mind think that! Had a copy of my rushed comments over the phone been submitted to me for correction, my parameters would have been made clear. No such luck.

 

The journalist I was talking to – or maybe the sub-editors, who knows? – decided to dish up a biased impression of one whose devotion to free and open theatre in her homeland has been a constant factor. South Africa has been the hectic in my blood all my life. Injustice makes me sick.

 

In para. nine of the piece Oparei mentions The Market Theatre. Actually I do know it; I am a founder patron of it and appeared in one of it’s opening productions in 1976, The Death of Bessie Smith, with John Kani and Winston Ntshona. In 1987 I directed John Kani’s marvellous Othello there, now known as The Johannesburg Othello. It also played on Channel Four TV here in Christmas 1988. It is not a play I can ever see again without the stamp of apartheid embedded in it. We had managed to convince the ANC-in-exile’s Culture Desk to accept that Shakespeare be considered a protest playwright. I daresay he would have been pleased. During the run of Othello the Market Theatre’s black audience rose to an unprecedented 60%. Evidently the townships had heard that the tragic story of the humiliation of a black man was being acted out in some of the greatest poetry ever written on a stage, and they came in their droves.

 

I worked with Kani again in my production of Hamlet in 2006, and we both hope to do further work together before too long. I might disagree that Woza Albert was The Market’s ‘greatest’ export during those years, handing that accolade to Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island, both collaborations with the actors involved and Athol Fugard. The Suit began under the direction of Barney Simon the then Artistic Director of The Market and has been taken on as part of the repertoire of Peter Brooke’s Bouffe du Nord company today. But certainly all those plays and more were products of The Market’s unique style of beginning as improvised plays. The point I want to make is that both actors and the audiences at The Market were mixed, free of the dreadful shackles of apartheid. That was the joy of it and was the whole point of The Market’s foundation. On the whole theatres are not enough mixed here. A nice paradox.

 

I take the point about black punters feeling uncomfortable amongst white audiences, but I would hope that is by now a thing of the past? I am willing to stand corrected because I know little, but I tell you, it is the actors loss. Playing to a fully mixed audience of all colours is a lively affair, filling the theatre with a welcome dose of heightened energy. When we performed my last play “Solomon and Marion” to a thoroughly mixed audience at The Hilton Festival in Kwa-Zulu Natal last September, we had a totally alive hour and a bit onstage. My fellow actor, Khayalethu Antony, and I revelled in the reactions. We had a quieter time at The Print Room in Notting Hill recently, which was a great place to play but irredeemably white. That is neither good nor bad, it just is, but a kind of loss to us all, nevertheless.

 

I can only ask De Obia Oparei in all humility to excise the impression that ‘Suzman’s insistence (I dont insist) and inference that to be black is to be ignorant of theatre’ (ouch). That moves too far into an area of generalised vindictiveness, the same mistake that was levelled at me. But I understand the anger, hence this attempt to say a heartfelt ‘sorry’ for the gross misunderstandings generated by my own stupidity.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Janet Suzman