Baltimore Watchdog Staff writer
TOWSON – Art played a significant role in helping to dismantle the racist, inhumane system of apartheid in South Africa, internationally renowned actor, director and screenwriter Malcolm Purkey told a mesmerized audience of college theatre majors Thursday.
In fact, the 66-year-old native of Johannesburg, South Africa said that creators of art “have a duty to give expression to their social context.”
Apartheid was a political and social system that rigidly separated whites from other races who were forced to use separate and inferior public services, benches and building entrances. The system, in place from 1948 to 1994, also stripped South African blacks of their citizenship and placed them into tribally-based reservations of sort. Nelson Mandela is remembered for his legacy in fighting apartheid and helping South Africa seek healing and forgiveness for these heinous acts.
But Purkey insisted in his lecture before about 100 students and faculty gathered in the Main-Stage Theater inside the Center for the Arts on Towson University’s campus that art also played a great role as Mandela in dismantling apartheid.
“I’m here to share with you how South Africa went from very oppressive conditions of apartheid to the extraordinary interesting negotiated revolution that let Nelson Mandela come to power,” Purkey said of Mandela’s presidency from 1994 to 1999.
Purkey, who now serves as dean of the South African Film School (AFDA). took the audience on a trip back in history to what his life was like growing up in a highly segregated apartheid state.
Purkey was born to British immigrant parents in a small suburb in Johannesburg, called Orange Grove. His father was a jazz pianist and his mother was a singer.
For Purkey, growing up in Johannesburg in the 70s meant isolation and racism. As a white, he enjoyed the best resources of the country but there was no diversity, not even at his high school, Highlands North.
“That was the fate I faced growing up in South Africa,” said Purkey who earned a bachelor’s degree in art at the University of Witwatersrand.
Using a Fulbright scholarship, Purkey earned a master’s at the University of New York, Binghamton. His interest in theatre, grew, developed and evolved. He began to see and appreciate how the anti-apartheid theatre over the decades played a tremendous role in the negotiated revolution and transition to Democracy in South Africa.
This insight was not Purkey’s alone. Most black men and women would be found in the theater, he said.
“The oppressed flock to the theater to realize their own life stories and to come to grasp with their own reality,” Purkey said, explaining that the theater gave people hope and shined a new light on their oppression, and showed them that they could change their circumstances through revolution.Purkey said he is convinced that the anti-apartheid theater movement really started with Athol Fugard’s play “Blood Knot” (1961), which is a story about two brothers who have different mothers, but the same father. One brother is of a darker tone, while the other is pure white.
“We black or white are tied together by a blood knot, whether we like it or not,” said Fugard about his play.
Purkey said that Fugard sets up the conditions of all South African theatre that follow when he wrote: “I’m commissioned by history. Do I want that history? ”
Fugard’s point, said Purkey, is that artists are bound by their social contexts. He asked do they have a duty to give expression to their social context?
“I believe that completely art makers have to give expression, bear witness to the oppression around us or just the stupidity of others or the perversity or maybe the delight,” said Purkey. “‘The Blood Knot’ plays on race characteristics to the point where it could be deemed racist.”
Purkey continued: “Fugard wrote somewhere if I find myself censoring myself I know I’m on to something good. ‘The Blood Knot’ is influenced by absurdist tradition and partially interested by social realist and the play itself contains many of these language systems, and the conflict of racial stereotypes.”
In 1976, Purkey along with a couple of his classmates at the University of Witwatersrand, created the Junction Avenue Theatre Co. to serve as a platform to address the social injustices, racism, and exploitation that black South Africans faced every day.
Junction Avenue became the first non-racial theatre company in South Africa. The company created and scripted its own plays and composed songs that played an essential role in all their productions. One famous work is “Sophiatown,” which is based on a prank by Lewis Nkosi and Nat Nakasa who place an advertisement in the Drum magazine for a Jewish girl to come and stay with them in Sophiatown. The play embeds questions about race and identity, the relationship of music and politics.
“Junction Avenue Theater functions as an indicator of social change,” said Jeffrey Davis author of Voices of Justice and Reason: Apartheid and Beyond in South African Literature. “Multiracial in their casting, multilingual in their performances and multicultural and their aesthetics and playing before audiences drawn from all races too, their work has proved of, seminal importance and not only for future theater practice.”
Purkey said that art is the most revolutionary idea, and many in attendance agreed.
“Theatre, music and the visual arts have always played a major role in voicing the ideas and opinions of change,” said Tavia LaFollette, a professor in Towson University’s Department of Theatre Arts.
Lynn Tomlinson, professor of Electronic Media & Film, said, “I was interested to hear that he felt that the theater was a space where more revolutionary ideas could be expressed, where film and television were more controlled by the government.I wonder if there is this same distinction in today’s media landscape.”
Purkey was asked if there is a demand within the arts in South Africa for social change, considering all that is going on in the world today.
“One of the most interesting things about South African theater in particular is that it is almost taken for granted because it is socially engaged,” said Purkey. “There is hardly a play made in South Africa unless it’s willfully anti-social that’s what gives it its life. I ultimately believe in those basic principles if it’s not embedded in the social crisis it can’t have a life.”