There has been much exasperation, disappointment and even anger expressed after the recent Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards affirmed white winners in all 17 categories in which the panel of 13 judges made selections. Considering that only four of the 68 nominees were persons of colour, this should hardly have come as a surprise.
Fingers were immediately pointed at the judges for 2011, the majority of whom were white, and most of these were Afrikaans-speakers. Some opined that it was little wonder then that awards were given to Afrikaans-speakers in the coveted categories of leading actor, leading actress and leading support actress, best performance in a cabaret/revue/solo performance, most promising student and best director.
The actual awards event with two presenters – one English and one Afrikaans (in a province with isiXhosa also as an official language); entertainment provided by white musicians, and dancers who were persons of colour, covered in mud and who had the unfortunate appearance of subserviently holding up the awards for the all-white winners, as well as the acknowledgement of DA politicians in attendance, added to the perception – by some – of the 47-year-old awards as, at worst, a relic of the apartheid past, and at best, a confirmation of the Western Cape and Cape Town being “untransformed” and out of touch with the rest of the country.
However, to criticise the judges for the overwhelmingly white nominations and winners, is a superficial response unless it is supported by an analysis of what the judges were obliged – by the local theatre industry – to work with. Are the nominations and awards only a reflection of the cultural biases of the judges or do they reflect the reality of the demographics within Cape Town’s theatre industry?
According to the award organisers, there were 63 productions which were eligible for the awards, of which 53 (84%) were presented in 6 theatre spaces: the Baxter Theatre (15), UCT’s Intimate/Little theatre complex (9), Theatre on the Bay, Artscape and the Kalk Bay Theatre (8 each) and the Fugard Theatre (5) with single productions spread between the New Africa Theatre, Magnet Theatre, the City Hall, Maynardville, Kirstenbosch Amphitheatre and the HB Thom in Stellenbosch while On Broadway housed two shows.
Four of the six main theatre spaces – Theatre on the Bay, Kalk Bay Theatre, the Fugard Theatre and the Little Theatre/Intimate Theatre complex – provided more than 100 roles for actors during 2011, but fewer than 5% of these were filled by actors of colour. While the Baxter Theatre and Artscape produce some of their own work (both reflecting greater racial equity in the employment of actors in their own productions), many of the productions presented at these spaces (and the Fugard and Kalk Bay Theatre) are “rentals” i.e. independent theatre companies that hire the space.
The key point is that of the actors employed in plays presented during 2011 at these 6 theatres and who were eligible for the leading actor, leading actress, leading supporting actor and leading supporting actress categories, just more than 10% were persons of colour which was proportionately less than the 12% representation of persons of colour in the Fleur du Cap nominations in these categories. In other words, rather than the judges being responsible for the lack of nominations of people of colour – and ultimately for the absence of people of colour as winners in various categories – the more fundamental problem is that of theatre managements and independent theatre-makers choosing to do plays and/or casting the plays in a manner that provides the judges with an overwhelmingly white pool – nearly 90% of the total number of actors – to choose from.
The Mechanicals, for example, is a superb company that attracts numerous nominations each year for the excellent theatre work that it does with relatively meagre resources. It is based at the UCT Little Theatre/Intimate Theatre complex, with most of the company members being graduates from this institution. And yet, despite UCT graduating a number of actors of colour each year, The Mechanicals seldom has actors of colour in its productions. Why? Do actors of colour not get invited to be part of the company? Are plays selected for performance that generally do not cater for actors of colour? Are actors of colour not prepared to work at risk like white members of the company? Whatever the reason/s, it does not help with the diversification of the local theatre industry if young actors of colour are not honing and celebrating their skills in a company such as The Mechanicals.
But if the lack of demographic equity is a major problem in the Fleur du Cap’s acting categories where one could expect greater equity, the situation is even more dire in other categories. Of the 38 plays whose directors were considered for the Best Director award, only one director – Fatima Dike – was a person of colour, with 7 directors being responsible for just under 50% of the total productions under consideration.
Nineteen productions included music or soundscapes of which of only three were done by persons of colour. 28 of the 32 lighting designs were done by white designers with one person of colour being responsible for 3 of the 32 designs, while no person of colour designed costumes (for 18 productions) or sets (for 29 productions, 21 of which were shared by 10 designers) or puppets.
These facts confirm a much greater problem within Cape Town’s theatre industry, and the “whiteness” of the award nominees and winners cannot be laid simplistically at the door of Distell, the sponsors of the event, nor at the door of the judges who can only select from what they are given by theatre managements, festivals and independent producers.
Given our history and the peculiarities of the industry in the Western Cape, we are – understandably – highly sensitive to the racial/cultural dynamics at such award events. And yet, there are many white industry players who are not nominated or who do not win awards despite being nominated. For every white actor nominated in the Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor categories, there are at least 13 white actors who are not nominated. Two directors – Alan Swerdlow and Fred Abrahamse – were each responsible for 4 plays in 2011, but, despite their great experience and expertise, neither was nominated in the Best Director category. If these two directors were persons of colour, many would believe that they were slighted on the basis of racial or cultural bias, but that – in the context of the demographic composition of the theatre industry in Cape Town – would be highly superficial and simplistic. This implies that there needs to be much more participation by, more opportunities created for and upskilling of people of colour across the theatre industry in Cape Town regularly to produce a critical mass of nominees who stand a real chance of winning on the basis of merit rather than because of political correctness.
With theatres having limited resources for producing their own work (thus their heavy reliance on rentals), festivals have become the key producers of new theatre productions. The Suidoosterfees, the Woordfees in Stellenbosch and the ABSA KKNK in Oudsthoorn – all of which serve a primarily Afrikaans-speaking market – produce numerous plays between them annually so that inevitably, many of these plays will be staged in the city’s main theatres and will thus be eligible for the awards. Given this scenario, it would appear to be less a case of simplistic cultural bias of some of the judges in favour of Afrikaans theatre personalities and more a post-1994 systemic problem of cultural policy and funding that provides a surfeit of excellent Afrikaans theatre productions (few, if any, of which provide work opportunities for “black African” actors, directors or technical personnel).
Notwithstanding all of the above, do cultural biases play a role in the judging process? Certainly! All awards of this nature have an element of subjectivity on the part of the judges. So would the judging panel benefit from being more representative of the region’s demographics? Absolutely! Notions of excellence and merit are not absolute, but are culturally-influenced and time-bound so that determining award winners would benefit from robust debate and a diversity of perspectives. Judges should, however, have the requisite theatrical expertise and knowledge as it would be a great disservice to the sector if awards are made on the basis of political considerations rather than artistic ones.
On the other hand, this year’s awards event reflected poor political, business and artistic judgement. No company wants its brand – or the events and projects that promote its brand – to be compromised or sullied in any way. After the 2011 embarrassment of awards being made to the wrong nominees, and precisely because the organisers would have been aware of the nominations and the potential controversies around the winners given similar controversies in the past, the event could have been organised to be more inclusive and more celebratory of the diversity of theatrical (as opposed to music and dance) talent in the city.
The semiotics of an awards event can be easily corrected in future. The greater challenge of this year’s Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards is to Cape Town’s theatre sector: does it have the vision for and commitment to a theatre practice that serves, reflects and includes the diverse communities of people of the province?
Mike van Graan is the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute and is Artscape’s Associate Playwright.