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Catherine Cole shares her perspective on Robyn Orlin and Albert Ibokwe Khoza
Catherine Cole, UW Professor of Dance and English, specializes in African performance. In this video, she shares her thoughts about South African choreographer Robyn Orlin’s work “And so you see... our honourable blue sky and ever enduring sun... can only be consumed slice by slice...,” which will be performed by Albert Ibokwe Khoza, September 30 – October 1, 2022, at Meany Center. Produced in partnership with Bill T. Jones and New York Live Arts
How to See the World in an Orange
Program notes by Catherine M. Cole
A bare stage, a few props, great theatre. These are defining characteristics of South Africa’s anti-apartheid theatre. Developed in the 1970s and 1980s, this theatre was aesthetically lean and scenographically spare yet politically incisive, bold, and direct. Imagine creating theatre in a climate of extreme racial segregation, in a country without freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, or freedom of movement. Imagine creating interracial performances in a racially divided land where the white minority — who represented 20% of the population — controlled 80% of its resources while the black majority was entirely disenfranchised. With limited scripts, sets, costumes, and props, and often performing clandestinely in unlicensed venues, anti-apartheid theatre assembled an interracial public to witness and acknowledge repressed truths. Both audiences and performers were courageous, for they had to be prepared at a moment’s notice for a police raid that could land everyone in jail.
Fast forward to 2016, the year that this performance, “And so you see... our honourable blue sky and ever enduring sun... can only be consumed slice by slice...,” first premiered. Created over two decades after democratic South Africa’s first elections, this is post-apartheid performance art. While created long after apartheid’s end, one can nevertheless see the legacy of South Africa’s distinctive aesthetic traditions. You will see a single performer — Albert Ibokwe Khoza — on a bare stage with few props: saran wrap, a bolt of muslin, blue paint, a skirt made of whips. Albert is expansive, larger-than-life, and fabulous as he takes us into unknown worlds, summons astonishing and unnerving images, and stages unexpected encounters. He directly and impiously engages the audience. He defiantly claims space as a black, queer man from the global South moving in a world both at home and abroad that is still rife with anti-black racism and homophobia. With extravagance and joy, Albert consumes the world slice by slice — whether it is the world of an orange or the world of international geopolitics. He summons Vladimir Putin, most improbably, to dance and uses this encounter to talk about first world mineral extraction from Africa, international arms dealing, and homophobia. A live video feed with projection gives the audiences multiple angles and perspectives on the stage, like a cubist painting. Point of view is everything in this performance, as indicated in its title: “And so you see….” We are invited to reconsider how we see, from where we see, and how our preconceptions often limit what we can perceive.
“And so you see…” is a collaboration between two different generations of South African artists: Robyn Orlin, born in the 1950s, and Albert Ibokwe Khoza, born in the 1980s. Orlin is a white artist who came out of the dance world and rose to prominence in the hectic ‘80s, the final throes of the apartheid regime, and into the early years of South Africa’s new political dispensation as a non-racial “rainbow nation.” The 1990s was a time for questioning established theatrical conventions, for such traditions were often saturated with legacies of white supremacy and racialized violence. Orlin pioneered the renovation of old aesthetic forms in order to hold new, fresh content. She broke down racial barriers and artistic silos by bringing together on one stage formerly segregated dance forms—ballet enmeshed with Zulu indlamu, European modern dance intermixed with Shangan xibelani, Latin Cumbia put side-by-side with go-go dancing. As Orlin mixed forms with pluck, irreverence, and ironic humor, she also pulled up the edges of the stage itself, making audiences question if and when the performance had begun, and where exactly were the boundaries of the playing area. As her performances seeped into the aisles, lobbies, dressing rooms, and beyond, Orlin exploded the stage, often aided by early adoption of webcams and ingenious use of portable car repair lights.
Representing the next generation of performance artists, Albert Ibokwe Khoza is a black actor, singer, performance artist, and dancer who came of age in a post-apartheid world. He describes himself as “born, bread, and buttered in Soweto,” a famous black township of Johannesburg. “I was a chubby child, so I experienced a lot of bullying,” says Albert of his formative years. “I was a loner and still am actually! I also experienced a lot of name-calling while growing up because I am gay.” While studying for a bachelor’s degree in Drama at the University of Witwatersrand, Albert also felt called to become an inyanga, a traditional healer. On stage, he doesn’t see himself as performing or creating a “show,” but rather he is giving an offering. Audiences, critics and presenters struggle to classify and categorize what Albert does, often grasping at the label “performance art.” Yet audiences would do well to understand that Albert is performing a ritual — that is, an encounter designed to affect transformation. Through the power of self-love, he transformed his own experiences of bullying and stigma in a country were homophobic violence not infrequently leads to death. “I’m gay, I’m a traditional healer, an artist and a dancer who doesn’t have the kind of body people would classify as a dancing body…I’m basically an outcast!” Yet Albert on stage is no outcast. He is regal, imperious, defiant, and flamboyantly himself. Albert invites us into an intimate and spare production. On a bare stage and with a few props, he provides an opportunity for us to have a great reckoning in a little room.
As we emerge in Autumn 2022 from over two years of recurrent COVID lockdowns, “And so you see…” brings us out of isolation to experience together, live and in person, an incantation of hope. As the first installment in a new performance series called “Becoming: At Home in the World,” curated by choreographer Bill T. Jones and co-presented by Meany Center and New York Live Arts, “And so you see…” is a fitting launch to this ambitious project. This show itself stages a “becoming,” as is evident from its first scene: a revelation, an unfurling, as we witness the emergence of a magnificent being from a cocoon. Albert’s becoming invites us too to become fully ourselves at home in the world — whether it is the world of an orange or the world of global international politics. Despite the fact that Johannesburg and Seattle are on different sides of the planet, we are all intimately connected and interdependent.