Last year, at the 52nd Fleur du Cap Awards event hosted at Artscape, Mamela Nyamza, Chuma Sopotela, Buhle Siwani and Zikhona Jacobs performed a protest against the pre-dominance of white nominees. Wielding placards declaring “70 nominees 52 white nominees”, “#nominatelikeits1965” and “#white excellence”, the protestors drew attention to the symptoms of a lack of transformation within the theatre industry in the Western Cape.
There were 16 categories at last year’s awards; this year, there were six additional categories in which nominations were made: Best Performance by an Ensemble, Best Performance in an Opera – Male, Best Performance in an Opera – Female, Best Theatre Production for Children and Young People, Award for Most Promising Student and Best Production.
With the appearance of more black nominees (I use “black” in the Biko sense), and icons such as Faniswa Yisa and Jay Pather winning their respective categories, the critique of this year’s edition of the Fleur du Cap awards has been far more muted. In fact, so much has the “fare being shared” (relative to last year) that we could almost be tempted into believing that our performing arts industry (at least with respect to theatre, musicals and opera) has achieved a “rainbow” moment, the making of a “Witkanda” if you like.
In an industry of small returns where any kind of affirmation – and monetary reward – is to be applauded, I do not wish to burst any happy-clappy bubbles, but it is in our interests as an industry to reflect a little more deeply on the awards and what they say about us at this time.
In 2012, I wrote an article reflecting on the Fleur du Cap Awards event that year, a year after a rather controversial awards event, which approximates almost exactly the events of 2018 following 2017.
The article started thus:
“Six weeks after the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, with the event and the awards having been received significantly better than the 2011 version, it would be of value to the local theatre industry to reflect on the awards. While there has been a complete absence of controversy around the 2012 Awards (at least publicly), there have nevertheless being questions raised – more discreetly – not least because of the perceived political correctness of these latter awards.
In short, while the controversies of 2011 related to the selection of “white” winners in all 17 categories in which awards were made, this year’s awards are controversial for the opposite reason i.e. 5 of the 15 awards (33% in total), including some of the most competitive awards i.e. best actor, best actress, best supporting actor and best supporting actress, were all won by people of colour for the first time in the history of the Awards, with an additional two awards (theatre innovation and lifetime achievement) made to people of colour.
The purpose of this article is not to undermine any winner (particularly people of colour who historically have been, and remain under-represented in just about all Awards categories as well as within key decision-making positions within the local theatre industry), but rather to interrogate the 2012 awards both for what they reflect about the theatre industry in the Western Cape and for what they reflect about the judging process, in order to contribute to the ongoing development, transformation and celebration of excellence within the local theatre industry.
Their value as an affirmation of excellence in the industry, their consequent marketing benefits and their prize money all affirm that the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards occupy a unique space in the regional and national theatre landscape, a landscape in which there is limited financial reward and recognition for practitioners. For this reason alone, it is necessary to interrogate the Awards from time to time in order to ensure that they do not lose or compromise their value, but that they continue to recognise and celebrate excellence within the local theatre industry.
The nature of such – and similar – awards is that there will always be some debate about winners and losers, some ill feeling about who was nominated and who was not; this is not what this article is about. Rather, it is to evaluate what progress, if any, has been made since last year, and where the deficiencies, if any, might lie this year, in order to address these”.
This could very well have served as the introduction to this particular article, except that this one will have a few more personal anecdotes.
The basic conclusion to my 2012 article was:
“While the anger at the Fleur du Cap judges in 2011 was largely misplaced given that they were required to judge what was made available to them by theatre managements, except for the technical, design and directing categories where persons of colour are still woefully under-represented, the Fleur du Cap judges had a significantly larger pool from which to make their selections in 2012.
The 2012 Judging Panel is thus primarily responsible for the decisions made, particularly in the first four categories where the categories for lead and supporting actors and actresses in plays, were all won by persons of colour.
In the light of the controversies of 2011, it is difficult not to conclude that the 2012 judges succumbed to their individual and/or collective politically correct pressures to arrive at their final selections rather than the criterion of “merit”.
…it would appear that there has been an over-reaction to the 2011 controversies which may result in patronising and politically correct decisions and actions that undermine the value of the Fleur du Cap awards. At best, this year’s awards may be viewed as part of its upward trajectory that will eventually see the Awards stabilising as the theatre industry plays its part in its ongoing transformation and as the panel of judges comes to acquire the individual and collective vision, skills, experience, sensitivity and insights to play the role required of them”.
That was six years ago. And yet, here we are. Again.
After that article was published, I received a rather irate phone-call from one of the judges at the time who was most upset that I had questioned their integrity. Since then, (and perhaps it is purely coincidental), while my scripts (Pay Back the Curry, Brothers in Blood, Rainbow Scars) have been nominated in other awards – e.g. the Naledi Theatre Awards – they have not featured at the Fleur du Cap awards. I accept that this may simply be that relative to other nominees in those particular years, my scripts were simply not good enough to be nominated locally, but I mention this for three reasons:
- to be transparent so that readers can make up their own minds about whether this article – or parts of it – may be coming from a place of “sour grapes”
- I do believe that there are consequences for individuals who raise critical questions within our industry (hence the default position of many who would rather remain silent in the face of some form of injustice – which is ironic given that our industry lauds itself on speaking truth to broader powers) and
- I further believe that those associated with my creative work are treated unfairly by being ignored in award nominations (let alone as winners); by putting this on the table, I hope that in future, those given power to make judgements about the quality of our work can separate the creator from the many others who actually give the work life
Analysis of 2017/18 nominees and winners
The official media release about the nominees for the 52nd Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards lists 15 categories, each with five nominees and a sixteenth category with three nominees, for a total of 78 nominees. (Some individuals are nominated more than once for different productions, and so are assumed here to be separate nominees). Of these 78 nominees, 59 – 75,6% of the total – appear to be white, with 19 (24,4%) being black.
There were 4 black (25%) and 12 winners in these 16 categories, approximating the percentages of those nominated.
An award for innovation in theatre was made to the Makukhanye Art Room and a Special Encore Award was given to the cast of The Fall.
This year, with the additional categories, 60 (61%) of the nominees are white, with 38 (39%) being black. If the categories of 2017 were to be compared against the same categories for the 2018 event, 30 (37,5%) of the 80 nominees in 2018 would be black and 50 (62,5%) would be white, an improvement on the previous year’s nominations in sheer numbers, even without the additional opera categories that provided 6 black nominees.
The key difference between 2017 and 2018 in terms of contributing black nominees appears to be the musicals category with King Kong and Aunty Merle delivering 11 black nominees between them (2017 was a lean year for black performers in musicals with only two of 20 nominations going to black performers).
What is clear then, is that awards’ judges are dependent on the decisions of theatre managements and producers about what they choose to stage; they can only select from what is made available by the theatre industry (by independent, public and private producers and by what theatres allow to rent their stages).
However, as in 2012 – and indeed in every year – the judges are solely responsible for the selection of nominations in each category, and ultimately for the winners of each category, as well as for any additional awards (lifetime achievement, innovation, etc).
Which is why they alone should be held responsible for this year’s selections.
I have chosen not to attend the awards for the last five years, sometimes happily being out of town at the time, and at other times, like last Sunday, simply choosing to watch Carte Blanche instead.
About two days before the awards ceremony, I sent an email to a friend who was going to the event, and “predicted” who some of the winners would be, particularly in some of the more contested categories.
I wrote (some parts edited out):
“Given the outcry last year about a lack of black nominees and winners, the personal prejudices and favouritism that I think some influential judges have towards certain managements/practitioners, the generally parochial nature of the awards (favouring Cape Town productions above Joburg, far more so than the Naledis that are pretty open to productions from around the country), I would not be surprised if the following happens:
The top 4 categories – best actor best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress – have at least one person of colour, and particularly a black African person as a winner. Might even be two…😊
Best Actor would be between Craig Morris and Marty Kintu; Craig Morris should get it, but Marty has a good chance by virtue of the above.
Best Actress should be Charmaine Weir-Smith or Tinarie, but don’t be surprised if Faniswa gets it….
Best Supporting Actor – should be Mark Elderkin…unless the judges are desperate for a person of colour winner.
Best Supporting Actress – Anyone of the five actresses, but don’t be surprised if Renate Stuurman gets it.
Best lead actor in a musical – locals love Mark Lottering. All the others are pretty much out-of-towners.
Best performance by a lead actress in a musical – should be Ashley Harvey. But Nondumiso Tembe or Edith Plaatjies could get it.
Best performance in a revue/one person show – Gideon Lombard has won awards in the Afrikaans fests, and Daniel at NAF, but bet on Tony Miyambo for Kafka’s Ape.
Most promising student – probably Luntu Masiza.
None of the 4 technical categories – lighting, set, costume and sound – have a person of colour except Sound which has Neo Muyanga for Twelfth Night and Aunty Merle with Tarryn Lamb and Marc Lottering. Don’t be surprised if Neo wins….
Best new script – Paul won the Naledi. Local favourite among some influential types is Louis Viljoen. But don’t be surprised if Nadia Davids gets it…woman of colour and all.
Best director – all pretty strong contenders. Might be a need to satisfy the Afrikaans constituency – so Jaco or Lara for Reuk van Appels, but don’t be surprised if Jay Pather gets it. 😊”
By now, we know who the winners in each category were. As in 2012, the 2017/18 Fleur du Cap Awards judges – in my view – engaged in acts of extreme political correctness in selecting black winners in many of the categories. It is not that the winners are not worthy of being recognised for their body of work within the industry, but it is moot as to whether the productions for which they won this year was actually their best work, or even the best work relative to the work of others in the same category this year. Faniswa Yisa, for example, was brilliant in Ityala Lamawele (I’m not sure whether she was even nominated for a Best Actress award for that production), which is why there have been many comments about her recognition being “overdue”.
Six years ago, only 10% of the plays under consideration were directed by black people. It is almost exactly the same 6 years later! In 2011/12, there were no black nominees in the categories for Best Costume Design, Best Set Design and Best Sound or Original Score categories and one nominee for Best Lighting. In 2017/18 – six years later – there are no black nominees in the Best Lighting, Best Set Design and Best Costume categories, with two nominees for Best Sound or Original Score.
This year’s Fleur du Cap Awards, by playing the game of political correctness has whitewashed the ongoing challenges in fundamentally transforming the Western Cape theatre industry, of growing talent and providing opportunities in all areas of the industry.
But hey, the sponsors are happy, the judges feel affirmed, there won’t be protests next year, and the theatre status quo can remain; Witkanda has arrived in the Western Cape theatre industry!
For all the critique of whiteness, it is bemusing to observe how desirous black people are to be affirmed within this space. But then again, perhaps in an industry of small returns, and one in which black people still generally struggle after 24 years to have critical mass both quantitively and qualitatively (unlike in Gauteng), small victories need to be celebrated, provided that they do not blind industry players to the fundamental challenges that remain.
Beyond racial appeasement, towards the dumbing down of the theatre sector
But this year’s Fleur du Cap Awards have gone even further than the politically correct whitewashing; the spread of the nominees and of the eventual winners reflects a general dumbing down of the sector by the judges.
Last year, the judges gave a special award to the cast of The Fall, an ad hoc decision to recognise a worthy piece of theatre, whose individual components did not easily fit into any of the existing categories. There was no leading or supporting actor or actress, all the actors made up the whole. Which is why the judges probably created a new category this year: Best Performance by an Ensemble.
But, bizarrely, the nominees in this category included a part of one cast (the divas of Priscilla Queen of the Desert) as well as plays in which there were leading and supporting actors and actresses. Craig Morris won the category for Best Performance by an Actor in a play and yet the cast of Tartuffe was nominated as an ensemble. Even more bizarre is that the eventual winner in this category – What Remains – did not just have one, but TWO nominees in the category for Best Performance by a Lead Actress in a play – Buhle Ngaba and Faniswa Yisa. I’m not sure why they did not also nominate Denise Newman – unless she, or her surname, were not black enough for their purposes? By the way, who decided that these two actresses were “lead actresses” in What Remains? The writer/producer or the judges? Asking for a genuinely confused theatre-maker….
I confess I did not see it, but apparently the winner of the category for Best Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Musical or Music Theatre Show was Isabella Jane who sang the equivalent of one song in Evita? If this is true, then one has more reason to question the credibility of the Fleur du Cap judges, and the absolute confusion they cause within the industry about what constitutes an ensemble or a supporting act.
Without winning any of the other major categories, the Baxter Theatre’s production of Marat/Sade was awarded the Best Production Prize. Last year, there was no “Best Production” category, and it is almost as if at the end of the discussions, the judges realised that the Baxter Theatre – hosts of this year’s ceremony – was largely unrecognised, and so they decided to give them this prize!
In the past, when there has been controversy, the Fleur du Cap sponsors and representatives have always argued that the scoring for the productions is all done independently by the individual judges and then the scores are verified by an independent auditor. I do not believe this for one minute, and even if this were the case, the spread of the nominees and of the awards reflect discussions by the judges as an ensemble, perhaps with some leading and some supporting judges, who influence decisions so that they arrive at a patchwork of awards that appeases not only critics on the basis of race, but also ensures that all the major producing houses have at least one winner.
This also goes to the parochial nature of the awards; there are winners from outside Cape Town, generally, but local winners appear to be favoured as this is where the judges most have their ongoing relationships.
While some, or even most categories may have worthy winners, one cannot help but have the impression of the Fleur du Cap judges engaging in politics – in the broad sense of the word – seeking to appease various constituencies, including the theatre managements, the Afrikaans theatre industry, black stakeholders….
And so, the credibility of the awards is undermined, some of the categories are farcical and disrespectful of the industry, the theatre community is taken for a ride but remains silent, and the status quo is maintained.
The Fleur du Caps get personal (or why I do not believe this lot)
On 8 February, the Swedish Embassy hosted a “soft ceremony” in lieu of my being awarded the Hiroshima Foundation’s Prize for Peace and Culture. The next day, a leading Fleur du Cap judge tweeted “Astonishing how men who are quite comfortable treating womyn like shit in their personal space are awarded for promoting peace internationally. #Male privilege. Some days the world is a very tiring place”.
I cannot think of why she would write this other than because of the paragraphs below from a reflection I wrote on the 2017 National Arts Festival:
“As a reviewer, (Tracey) Saunders has enormous power to influence public thinking about the shows she reviews and about the issues, institutions and individuals she profiles. In this, she is not, of course, unique. However, she serves on the Artistic Committee of the National Arts Festival and convenes the Standard Bank Ovations Award panel. In these positions, she gets to determine what is selected for the Arena (and what not) and is highly influential in the allocation of Standard Bank Ovations (a role she also plays on the Fleur du Cap committee). Saunders also gets to influence the selection of judges for the Standard Bank Ovations panel so that the power relations and the dynamics on the panel would favour Saunders as the Convenor.
One would hope and expect that those who select work for some form of public acknowledgement do it on the basis of the work, rather than allow personal grudges, or their personal relationships and preferences within the industry or their need for institutional affirmation to inform their selections. In our industry of small returns though, the capturing on the one hand, and on the other, allowing oneself to be captured in a mutually beneficial relationship, play themselves out in ways other than Gupta-like financial benefits. Saunders has perks, power and prestige at the Festival, and from the Festival’s perspective, there is one less journalist to interrogate or critique it and its Cape Town Fringe sibling”.
None of this critique is levelled at Saunders because she is a woman, (or even because of her white privilege, although that would be a factor more than her gender); if anyone has followed my engagements over the last 25-30 years, they would know that I have been critical where I believed I needed to be irrespective of the race, gender, class or other extraneous factors related to the objects of my critiques.
What this tweet reveals though is that an influential judge bears a deep personal grudge to the extent that she does not believe that I should be affirmed. She is entitled to her belief and her grudge, but it is important for the sector to note that personal grudges DO impact on how one’s work is judged within our industry.
Last year, I had a play – Another One’s Bread – commissioned by the Centre of Excellence in Food Security which featured four women characters from Khayelitsha. It had a long enough run at the AFDA Theatre to be eligible for the FDCs, after which it enjoyed a highly successful run at the Market Theatre where it played to critical acclaim and excellent houses.
However, it was completely ignored by the Fleur du Cap judges, and I cannot help but wonder if the above tweet provides a clue as to why it was not – at the very least – nominated in the Best Ensemble category, for relative to most of the other nominees, this was a true ensemble piece (as pointed out by reviewers in Johannesburg), and even ticked the judges’ politically correct box!
But Another One’s Bread had another strike against it. One of the four performers (together with Faniswa Yisa, Motlatji Ditodi and Awethu Hleli) was Chuma Sopotela – this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art – but also one of the protestors against the whiteness of the 2017 Fleur du Cap nominees. Given the way in which (some) judges hold grudges, it is unlikely that they would affirm a piece featuring one of the protestors as this would give the impression of their succumbing to the protest. And so they engaged in the more elaborate politically correct smoke-and-mirrors undertaking described above. And played that old colonial/apartheid divide-and-rule trick by affirming Faniswa Yisa, an icon within the black theatre community in particular, thereby silencing the protests.
We (or some of us) see you though….
I recognise that all awards are contestable, that there are subjective elements to all of them and that they may all have a political dimension. I accept that I may have been a political beneficiary of awards in the past. What I do not accept is that a panel of judges or their sponsors sell themselves as independent, as objective, as having the interests of the theatre sector at heart, and then engage in acts that reflect complete disdain and disrespect for the sector, while giving an impression of progressiveness.
The judges are not accountable to anyone but to themselves and to the sponsors. Few question them publicly for fear of falling foul of them. Many of them are connected to news outlets which are unlikely to critique their colleagues, and most outlets no longer have experienced, critically engaged arts journalists anyway.
In my view, based on the selection of this year’s nominees and award winners, while they may generally be lovely people, as an ensemble of judges, they have failed our industry, and should, quite frankly, resign. How can it be that the work of theatre professionals who work at great financial risks and other costs, can have their work evaluated, judged and presided over by such displays of rank amateurism? Would this be tolerated in any other industry?
The judging categories should be more clearly and transparently defined than the current state of adhocracy, and individuals with more knowledge of the industry and of how theatre works should form the critical mass of the panel.
But, of course, based on this year’s evidence, the theatre community appears to be very happy to have an annual party to dress up for, to gloss over the cracks in the industry, to accept the crumbs of appeasement and perhaps to wake up in 4 or 5 years’ time for another protest action.
As for me, come the second or third Sunday in March, I will be watching Carte Blanche….