Sekunjani? Gibson Kente, Stephen Black, and Artistic Legacies

South Africans are obsessed with soap operas.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  When I was in South Africa this past summer, the Zulu-speaking family I lived with followed an ironclad schedule in evening: do whatever you want as the sun goes down, but when 6:30 rolls around, the T.V. will be tuned to S.A.B.C. 1 (“Mzansi Fo Sho”) and Skeem Saam will be playing, a quasi-educational soap about young men from Limpopo navigating university life in the big city.  At 7:00, we would watch the news in either Xhosa or Zulu (it alternates by day) as we ate dinner; then, at 7:30, we would switch to for Scandal! (or, rarely, watch Rhythm City on S.A.B.C. 1).  At 8:00 we would be back on S.A.B.C. 1 for Generations: The Legacy and at 8:30, just before most of us turned in for the night, we were faced with the difficult choice between two Zulu language soaps set in KwaZulu-Natal: Uzalo on Mzansi Magic, about the son of a pastor who struggles to balance his religious calling with his playboy tendencies, and Isibaya on good old S.A.B.C. 1, a graphically violent show about taxi drivers.  Almost without fail this routine was followed almost every weeknight I was in Durban (and if you happened to miss a day, the week’s episodes would re-air as an omnibus over the weekend.  Evenings in the living room with my homestay family, finding myself more and more invested in each show’s various melodramatic storylines are some of my strongest and happiest memories of the summer, and by the end of August I could recognize many of the actors and actresses gracing the covers of popular magazines like DRUM! and Bona.

It’s an aspect of South African popular culture that I think few outside the country really appreciate.  Due to government suspicion of the medium, television came to the country in 1976, almost absurdly late, and while Ron Krabill has explored how South African television in the late 1970’s and 1980’s reflected the complex desires and contradictions of the apartheid era (the most popular shows of the era were Dallas, The Bold and the Beautiful, and, perhaps unexpectedly, The Cosby Show), little academic attention has been paid to the South African soap opera.[1]  Given how important locally-made soap operas are in the lives of South Africans today (of all races; one of the most popular programs, S.A.B.C. 2’s long-running 7de Laan, is geared at an Afrikaans-speaking audience), it seems like an important avenue for future research.

But what does all this have to do with the digital humanities, and my own prospective project on Stephen Black?  Over the Thanksgiving holiday I was fortunate enough to read Rolf Solberg’s 2011 biography of Gibson Kente, the “father of South Africa’s township theatre,” and a somewhat controversial figure.  Active from the early 1960’s until his death from A.I.D.S. in 2004, Kente was enormously popular and influential during most of the apartheid era, and pioneered a style of musical theatre that in some ways presaged the flowering of South African soap operas in the post-apartheid era.  Criticized by some of his contemporaries for his apparent ambivalence towards the anti-apartheid struggle, Kente was nevertheless deeply interested in the everyday realities of life for black South Africans.  As the sociologist Herbert W. Vilakazi put it, “Kente was concerned to show how the outer boundaries of white supremacy shaped and determined the inner boundaries in the desires and dreams and aspirations, passions and thoughts, of normal people in the ghettos of South Africa.”[2]  Like Stephen Black, Gibson Kente’s plays often dealt with the spectre of the South African future, and future that present politics might create.  His 1987 play Sekunjalo (The Hour Is Come) was criticised for negatively portraying an African socialist future, while Mfowethu (1993) and Ezakithi (2001) present a more optimistic view of South African reconciliation reminiscent of the end of Stephen Black’s Helena’s Hope, Limited.

Another unfortunate similarity to Stephen Black is his elusive documentary remains. In 1989 almost all of his papers were destroyed in a house fire. He left very little documentation behind him after his death as well, “due to Kente’s particular way of developing a play. More often than not…Kente would build the storyline around a song or melody, with any writing down of dialogue and script coming later in the process.”[3]. It is no accident that some of Kente’s most important protégés, like Sello Maake kaNcube, are some of the most important soap stars in contemporary South Africa.

So here we have two of South Africa’s most important historical entertainers, spanning two drastically different times and milieux, yet inescapably united in the fragility of their legacies. Thinking back to my reflections on the M.I.T. Global Shakespeares Project, the point is underscored again and again that theatre is so much more than just a script, and digital spaces afford us the opportunity to preserve and present theatre and its memories in tremendously exciting ways. Clearly there is a lot be said for digitizing and making accessible what we can of Black and Kente’s work, but this can only go so far. Any digital space dedicated to them must emphasize fluidity and malleability, must be aware of the limits of our understanding. Such spaces should aim at facilitating creativity on the part of the user, because the benefit of preserving the embers of that creativity is, ultimately, the reason why we should care about Black and Kente to begin with.

What is the use of laughter in the face of injustice? By the same token, what is the use of spending two and a half hours almost every night following the travails of fictional characters? My suspicion is that the ability to imagine the world in a different way is fundamental to our experience as human beings. In a country like South Africa, where the future has often seemed so uncertain, this seems doubly true. A Stephen Black digital archive would not speak for itself; it would need curation and presentation. But how to present him and his world critically yet delicately, facilitating innovative engagements with his work—this is what I’m going to be thinking about these last weeks of the course. I don’t know quite how it will look, but I’m excited for the journey.

  1. [1]Ron Krabill, Starring Mandela and Cosby: Media and the End(s) of Apartheid (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2010)
  2. [2]Quoted in Rolf Solberg, Bra Gib: Father of South Africa’s Township Theatre (Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2011): 113
  3. [3]Ibid., 116

The Cost of Interdisciplinarity: Reflections on the Need for Cultural Criticism in DH

What is the purpose of good teaching? What is the purpose of good scholarship? I have to confess that as I read yet another set of readings focused on the radical promise of digital humanities, I found myself wondering again about the position of “DH” vis a vis other academic institutions, and whether the current state of the discourse is as insular as the readings suggest. What is it about the digital that invites such fetishism, from both critics and allies? To echo Alan Liu and William G. Thomas III in their discussion of digital humanities “centers” at universities, the construction of digital humanities as a discipline outside “traditional” academic departments feels increasingly pernicious to me, otherizing and exoticizing what should be firmly in the main stream of humanities discourse.

This week I began to read a collection of plays by the influential South African actor and playwright Stephen Black. Black is remembered as the first professional actor in South African history, and his plays like Love and the Hyphen (1908), Helena’s Hope, Ltd. (1910), and Van Kalabas Does His Bit (1916) oscillate wildly between low brow comedy, melodrama, and sophisticated exploration of heady political themes in a country still reeling from the South African War (1899-1902), knit together for the first time as a single political unit. From questions of class and status to latent tensions between “Boer” and “Brit” to women’s suffrage and the political rights of black people (some of whom were allowed to vote in the Cape province but not elsewhere), Black’s plays and their wild popularity have a lot to tell us about early twentieth century South Africa, but because he never published them he was largely forgotten after his death in 1931.

I am able to read these plays, of course, because half a century later the literary critic Stephen Gray edited and published the volume I am reading. Working at the University of Witwatersrand in the dark days of the P.W. Botha administration, he introduces the collection by recounting his experience reviving Helena’s Hope, Ltd. at the university’s Performing Arts Centre. Mixed-race theatrical companies had been less than two years before, and Gray recounts vividly the process by which Helena’s Hope, Ltd. forced his actors to reconsider the history they had been taught in apartheid-era South African schools:

Although all of the players were Johannesburg residents, another first was encountering the hard fact that, after generations of education in the Transvaal…almost no information about, for example, the dispossession of the agriculturalists, the advent of taxation, the Battle of Johannesburg between Boer republican and British imperialist, the rise of capital in the city, the enfranchisement of White women and the disenfranchisement of Black men, the Land Acts preceding 1913, etc., etc,—it is a long list and these are all crucial issues in Black’s play, had seeped through to them. For them, coming to an understanding of these issues through the script and in the rehearsal room was tantamount to a re-education in their own immediate past.[1]

Preparing and performing Helena’s Hope Ltd. challenged Gray and his actors to confront a history that had been buried, to resurrect on the stage a world of discourse that had been foreclosed and repressed by apartheid society.  Far from a mere exercise in antiquarian drama, Gray’s troupe at Wits confronted a text that challenged their ideas about the past, present and future, all at the same time.

The readings for this week all stress the need for digital humanities to confront questions of difference.  Whether emphasizing the potential contribution of Asian-American studies, intersectionality, or feminist research ethics, each reading is at pains to save digital humanities from itself (or a stereotype of itself, perhaps).  Yet each of the ideas the readings laid out are each two to three decades old, largely innovations of the 1980’s cultural turn.  What does it mean that even at this late stage scholars in the field of digital humanities are treating such established (if perhaps not predominant) ideas as potential paradigm shifts?  Is digital humanities really so out of touch with current debates in the disciplines out of which it comes?

Certainly valuable work is being done, as the readings describe.  Moya Bailey’s Misogynoir book project is a genuinely cutting edge contribution to our understanding of the online presence of trans women of color, and it provides a useful model for future activist scholarship engaging with online communities.  But the tone of the readings for this week led me to wonder whether the prevalence of digital humanities “centers” outside academic departments contributes to a sense that DH is separate from debates and developments in more traditional disciplines, a disturbing suggestion that the much-vaunted interdisciplinarity of DH is, in some way, holding the field back, kin to the “retro-humanism” Roopika Risam’s article alludes to.

Stephen Gray’s presentation of Helena’s Hope, Ltd.  exemplifies a multi-modal approach to scholarship and pedagogy that does not involve the digital.  It does the things that we ask all great pedagogy (and great digital humanities scholarship to do): to present something not otherwise easily accessible in ways that challenge and illuminate our understanding of a particular context.  Keeping digital humanities outside the mainstream of academic life maintains a unique, innovative culture of DHers across disciplines and departments, but at the cost of keeping DH marginalized, fighting for legitimacy among jealous, insecure university departments led by academics easily disposed to suspicion.  The more readings I do for this class, the more I find the air of exceptionalism surrounding digital humanities to be damaging.  The presence of computers does not necessarily mark a paradigm shift in disciplines that have always engaged in multimodal research and multimodal productions.  Instead, digital humanities should embed itself in established disciplines; after all, it’s not as if DH spaces are the only ones facilitating interdisciplinary projects.  In the long run, the goal must not be the creation of academic space for a sui generis digital humanities, but the full integration of digital methodologies and engagement with various fields in the humanities.  If an entire field, such as women’s studies, needs to move in a more digital direction, that debate should be going on at the central venues of the field, not at the periphery or among an academic subculture.  If digital humanities is valuable, and digital cultural criticism is necessary, there is no virtue in being on the sidelines.  This is especially critical given the considerable expense of digital humanities projects.  Only when great digital humanities scholarship is considered as simply great scholarship, and great digital pedagogy considered great pedagogy, will the fight be won.

  1. [1]Black, Stephen, Three Plays, Stephen Gray, ed. (Craighall, South Africa: Adriaan Donker, 1984): 31.