NEW ARTICLE: “No Laughing Matter? Humour and the Performance of South Africa”

Hello all,

The “African History” part of this website’s brief has been sorely neglected this year owing to my comprehensive exams, but I hope to change all that this summer, having more time on my hands.  I’m particularly excited to share the link below, the first peer-reviewed article of my graduate career.  It’s been a long time coming, and it focuses on themes I’ve already written a bit about on this site: the early 20th century satirist Stephen Black, and his work’s parallels with Leon Schuster’s post-apartheid films.  The link to a free PDF will expire when enough people click on it, but if you have access to the South African Theatre Journal through a university library it should not be difficult to access it that way.

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or observations on the paper; any and all opinions are welcome!  Thanks once again to everyone who helped make this a reality.

Of Fluid Texts and Solid Foundations: The Challenges and Possibilities of Unpublished South African Comedy

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All the ordinary attempts at evaluating the significance of of humor in terms of its social use and psycho-physiological functioning seem of necessity to have to end in sterility.  Humor is something that stands apart from these things.  I feel that to get at the true essence of humor it must be approached from the side of the eternities, where it stands as some sort of a battered symbol of man’s more direct relationship with God.

In the world’s cultural development humor came on the scene very late.  And that is the feeling I have always had about humor, ultimately.  That it is one of man’s most treasured possessions, one of the world’s richest cultural jewels.  But that humor came amongst us when the flowers were already fading.  And that it came too late

Thus Herman Charles Bosman, mid-twentieth century South Africa’s foremost humorist ends an essay entitled “Humor and Wit.”[1]  An inauspicious beginning, perhaps, to an essay aimed at demonstrating the value in studying and historicizing humor.  Such circumspection is common even in the relatively few academic writings that do exist on the subject, perpetuating—in far less poetic terms—the idea that humor must “stan[d] apart from these things.”  Are we angered by the student of tragedy whose analyses are insufficiently tragic?

Yet there seems to be a widely-shared idea that killing a joke through study ruins the whole enterprise.  “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can,” remarks E.B. White, whose quip serves as the epigraph to Peter McGraw and Joel Warner’s 2014 book The Humor Code, “but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”  Funny for sure, but as Sharon McCoy (a past president of the American Humor Studies Association) notes on her blog, only a fool would start a dissection with a live frog!

White’s formulation shifts when we think of humor as founded in shared ground. Analyzing humor becomes like dissection only if you assume that the joke is already dead, that there is no common ground between those who “get it” and those who don’t — and no way to create it. His statement becomes, then, not a statement about the futility of analyzing humor, but about the lack of willingness to expand one’s community — or the profound pessimism and insecurity about whether the recipient of the explanation would want to join that community: “Few are interested.” I’m reminded of Groucho Marx’s quip, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

Suffice it to say that mounting an investigation into the history of humor requires confronting serious headwinds.  One can see this in the enormous dissonance between the way humor (much of it explicit political satire) pervades the South African pop culture landscape and the paucity of work that has been undertaken to interpret this trend.  Possible subjects are in abundant supply!  Whole monographs could be written on the career of Leon Schuster, a veteran Afrikaans filmmaker whose work spans nearly three lucrative decades.  Schuster has perfected the art of the lowbrow South African comedy: slapstick and scatological humor, candid camera pranks, the liberal use of blackface, and patriotic appeals to rainbow nationalism.  Schuster has plenty of critics (“You either love Leon Schuster or you would rather have your toe nails pulled out live on television,” says one), but he remains the undisputed king of the South African box office; his 2008 film Mr. Bones 2 (a sequel, no less!) is still the most successful locally made film in the nation’s history—second only to Titanic (1997).  Schuster’s films are by no means high-minded explorations of the dynamics of post-apartheid society—in fact there’s almost nothing high-minded about them at all—but the degree to which they are all somehow concerned with what it means to be South African, despite the crude stereotypes and fart jokes, is worthy of further inquiry.

Or take Kagiso Lediga, an increasingly important figure in South African show business.  From producing and appearing on the pioneering Pure Monate Show, “South Africa’s Monty Python,” Lediga went on to co-produce the Daily Show-style satirical news show Late Nite News With Loyiso Gola starting in 2010.  His latest S.A.B.C. venture, The Bantu Hour, is a Saturday Night Live-style mix of stand-up, pre-taped sketches, and interviews, and, incredibly, features the musical stylings of Hugh Masekela leading the house band—one of the most famous South African jazz musicians of all time.  The multiracial ensemble of comedians that feature in sketches tackle all kinds of topics, including racial issues, but one of the most interesting things about The Bantu Hour is the disclaimer that appears at the start of the show, read by Bra Hugh himself:

We would like to inform the viewer that the word “Bantu” is not a derogatory word for black people but it is actually an Nguni noun meaning people.


This program is by no means meant to offend.  Although being offended is by no means hazardous to your health.

This is a curious statement.  On one hand, Lediga’s intention to reclaim the word “Bantu,” which the apartheid government infamously used to refer to black South Africans, is clear.  On the other hand, the statement would appear to be directed mostly at the white, colored and Indian minorities, since black South Africans, whether Nguni speakers or not, presumably know what a word as basic as “abantu” means.[2]  Lediga routinely refers to the show’s audience as “bantu,” and once again the connection between comedy and national identity is reinforced.  Last year, as the country geared up for elections, Lediga co-wrote and starred in a feature film called Wonder Boy For President, which lampooned South African politics and featured numerous cameo appearances by politicians.

All of this is to say that South Africa is home to a vibrant comic culture which regards its position in the post-apartheid state as one of great political responsibility, a primary player in the ongoing process of reconciliation and nation building that is widely acknowledged in public discourse to be the responsibility of all South Africans.

In light of all this, consider the following quote from The Cape Argus of December 23rd, 1908:

One must realise that the actors, with their clever fooling, who make life sparkle for us, and teach us kindly philosophies, are just as worthily working towards Closer Union as grave statesmen, who in sealed conference assemblies are settling the tremendous matters of State, unification of the railways, civil services—and all the paraphernalia of Civilisation—with a large C…South Africans living close to nature are natural-born actors and one day they will evolve a Drama all their own—such as only a peasant folk with fresh emotions and perfect physiques can.[3]

It’s often forgotten that in 1908 South Africans found themselves in the midst of a process of nation-building and reconciliation that mirrored the country’s 1994 transformation in important ways in spite of the extent to which the 1910 Act of Union created a South Africa that was segregated, undemocratic, and arguably already starting down a path that would result in apartheid.  The South African War had ended only six and a half years earlier, leaving thousands of soldiers dead on the battlefield, but even more tragically, an official figure of 27,927 Boers dead in British concentration camps (the vast majority of whom were children under sixteen) and between fourteen and twenty thousand black South Africans dead in separate internment camps.[4]  Boer soldiers returned home from the war to find their farms burnt and their wives and children starving, and so began to pour into South Africa’s rapidly expanding cities, where they poverty alongside black and colored migrants drawn by the same lure.  Meanwhile, the political leaders of the Cape Colony, Natal, and the occupied Boer republics were busy designing a new nation based on unity of the “races”—”the race question” almost always referring exclusively to the prospect of reconciliation between Boer and Briton.  Black, colored, and Indian leaders had reason to hope, but also reason to fear: many had hoped that with a British victory in the war and the Act of Union, the qualified non-racial franchise enshrined in the Cape Colony would be extended to the rest of the country.  Unfortunately, just the opposite occurred—successive governments made a point of slashing black and colored voters from the Cape rolls, and in 1930 when all white women were finally enfranchised regardless of property qualification, the once formidable political power of such voters at the Cape was halved overnight.

Black’s aim in writing his first play Love and the Hyphen was to inaugurate an authentically national theatrical tradition in the South Africa.  The play visciously lampoons those of both British and old Afrikaner descent who seek to hide their colonial identity in the presence of others and refer to England as “home,” a problem that replicated itself on the Cape stage, as he recounted years later in a magazine.  “Our few actors and actresses had been painstakingly impersonating costers, lords, English solicitors, stage Frenchmen, Irish begorra-boys, scottish comedians; none could give the faintest idea of a Cape ‘boy,’ a Boer ‘jong’ or a Dutch ‘tante.'”[5].  It, as well as his subsequent works like Helena’s Hope, Ltd., and Van Kalabas Does His Bit, were broad comedies that the South African literary critic Stephen Gray classes as Victorian farce and melodrama.  But they were also plays committed to portraying South Africa in its fullness.  There are, of course, tropes and representations in Black’s plays that we would recognize as offensive, but, as Gray noted in 1984, at the height of President P.W. Botha’s reactionary administration,

Union utterly implicated the greater whole, and although the Act of Union excluded ‘Native’ rights, Black’s plays did not. By the depression of the 1930’s that network had collapsed into the beginnings of the more formally segregated society of today…the very notion that that the entire range of society can be portrayed on a stage as normal business has been increasingly lost. The children of apartheid, several generations on, no longer know that the land could have had a sense of being one democratic totality, and that its theatres could have reflected this spirit as found.[6]

Indeed, in his later life editing a satirical newspaper called The Sjambok, Black published the early work of both Herman Charles Bosman—whose moving words on humor opened this essay—and the Dhlomo brothers (Herbert Isaac Ernest and Rolfes Robert Reginald) the most important black South African writers of the interwar period.  Gray’s elegiac quote also alludes to the fact that Black as well as the theatrical tradition he promoted, came to an unexpected end at roughly the same time—South Africa’s relatively small dramatic circuit was eviscerated by the Great Depression in 1929, and Black himself died two years later, of liver cancer, at the age of just fifty-one.  Further imperilling his legacy, Black did not publish any of his plays in the course of his lifetime, for proprietary reasons.  Many of his manuscripts survive in South Africa’s National Archives, but not in definitive forms—Black constantly revised and rewrote his plays, sometimes adding entire acts to ensure the success of a particular revival.  Also important, of course, are the things left unwritten: comic songs, set pieces of state business and the details of how his plays were staged can only be hinted at by reading newspaper reviews.

Stephen Black (1880-1931). From Stephen Gray’s edited anthology.

It should already be clear that I am deeply interested in humor and its role in the development of South African national consciousness.  In the task of collecting and presenting Stephen Black’s written works online, I understand myself to be responding first to Stephen Gray’s apartheid-era call for the legacy of early twentieth century South African theatre to be re-examined and brought back into the public consciousness.  This call is particularly timely given the development, as outlined above, of a humorous post-apartheid reconciliation discourse that seems to share similarities with Black’s reconciliation push.  I also see myself answering the call of the South African historian Sandra Swart, who sought, in an article written for the Journal of Social History in 2009, “to make tentative first steps towards a cohesive social history of laughter in southern Africa,” taking as her subject the ways in which defeated Afrikaners after the South African War coped with the trauma of war through laughter as well attempts fold the archetype of the laughing Boer into Afrikaner nationalist canon.[7]  As someone who has recently grown more deeply acquainted with digital humanities, I want to explore in the remainder of this essay considering how the affordances of the digital might advance our ability to accomplish the task of recovering and presenting Black’s legacy in a way that engages the vibrant state of theatre in contemporary South Africa.

In the course of further and further research into the historiography of South African theatre this semester, I have also grown interested in the life and career of Gibson Kente, which draws striking parallels with that of Black. According to Rolf Solberg’s 2011 biography Bra Gib, Kente was born near the city of East London in 1932, the year after Black’s death, into a fairly affluent Xhosa family. The young Kente was mission educated, at Bethel and then the famous Lovedale College, where he was first exposed to music and performing arts. Moving to Johannesburg in 1955, Kente at first sought out Herbert Dhlomo’s Bantu Dramatic Society, but became disillusioned by the paternalism of the Johannesburg theatre scene’s white liberal benefactors. His long and successful career writing and staging original plays began with Manana the Jazz Prophet in 1961, about a preacher’s efforts to turn local gangsters from their wicked ways with music. It was not until the 1970s, however that his “political trilogy” How Long? (1973), I Believe (1974), and Too Late (1975) established him as one of South Africa’s foremost black playwrights.[8]

Like Black, Kente performed the roles of actor, director, playwright, composer, and manager simultaneously; unlike Black, he did so on a township circuit which often involved a grueling schedule of one-night-only performances in crude facilities.  Peter Larlham, in his book Black Theater, Dance and Ritual in South Africa, describes one such performance outside Durban:

A black audience of 1,200 persons, each paying two rands (approximately three American dollars) admission, packed the small cinema in Umlazi township in July 1979.  The performance of The Load started an hour late, waiting for the audience to assemble, but those already present remained excited and expectant.  The audience responded volubly throughout, commenting on the action and as a result, the dialogue was difficult to follow.  At key moments in the play, dialogue, which was necessary for the exposition of the plot, was delivered by the actors turning to face the audience directly and projecting their lines slowly with exaggerated articulation.[9]

Indeed, as the theatre critic Robert Mshengu Kavanagh explained in 1985, “Kente’s theatre was especially effective in non-intellectual, unarticulated areas of communication.  The total mesage of these plays was far more powerful than that which is contained in the script, because important elements of the play’s impact remained unarticulated…Our own first-hand experience revealed how the music of these plays was able to fuse an audience of separate and divided individuals in an experience of intense cultural identity.”[10]

Gibson Kente (1932-2004). From Rolf Solberg’s 2011 biography.

Yet this “intense cultural identity” and Kente’s profound interest in “how the outer boundaries of 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,” often ran afoul of more explicit disciples of “protest theatre.”[11]  Kente’s insistance on the centrality of entertainment, and refusal, as he saw it, to cash in on the apartheid system by attacking it for its own sake, dogged him from the 1970s onward. After being widely criticized for the apparent conservatism of his 1987 play Sekunjalo (“The Hour Has Come”), which foretold a turbulent socialist future for post-apartheid South Africa, in his later career Kente nevertheless continued to write plays about the limits of political rhetoric, the possibility of reconciliation in a democratic country, and the nature of South African identity—as always, served up with a healthy doses of music, dance, and comedy. His patriotism is on full display in a 1989 interview with Tribute magazine:

I believe we all love our country, and I am no different. I do not want to inherit a mutilated and jaundiced country…As a black man, it is more natural for me to build bridges than to destroy…I have always believed that if we build with the children, in future they will preserve rather than destroy what they helped build themselves.[12]

Like Stephen Black before him, Kente thus dedicated his life to the idea of a nation to come. Unfortunately, also like Stephen Black, Kente died an untimely death, having published few of his works. Many of his most important writings and records were destroyed in a 1989 house fire, which Kente referred to as a firebombing.

As anyone familiar with performing arts knows, a theatrical production is a great deal more than just a script.  Scripts themselves are changed all the time in the course of productions, scenes are cut, new elements are added, and directors and production teams seek to make their own unique mark on the performance history of a particular show.  The size of the performance space matters, as does the lighting, the set and the sound design.  As always, any attempt at archiving here will necessarily fall short of the original, since nothing can compare to actually being in the space with the performers—though here too, it’s also true that performances themselves vary from night to night, sometimes quite drastically.  In a very significant sense, then, what happens during the run of a particular production can never be recovered.  But this doesn’t mean that the ephemera of theatre—documents, recordings, and paraphernalia—should not be preserved.  Doing so—and making such materials available to others—prepares the ground for future visions to build off of what has been done before.  Moreover, as theatre’s role in the anti-apartheid struggle and even the recent controversy over the vice president-elect’s visit to Hamilton attest, theatre has the potential to be profoundly relevant in the wider world of people and power.

Perhaps the most ambitious digital humanities project dealing with theatre arts at the moment is Visualizing Broadway, a project spearheaded by Derek Miller, an assistant professor of English at Harvard University.  It’s not yet up and running, but according to an article published in Harvard Magazine from last year, its centerpiece is a massive database of shows that have appeared on Broadway since 1900.  The big data approach, according to Miller, is aimed at better understanding what makes Broadway shows successful, not only to improve our understanding of New York theatrical history, but to bring failures back into the study of theatre—since, after all, failure is a far more likely outcome than success in show business. The project also focuses on reconstructing professional networks to understand how the presence of successful people might correlate with the success of shows.  It’s a far larger project than anything I could see someone doing on South African theatre, but I would be interested in knowing, once the site is up and running, how the project visualizes professional networks which are important in any theatrical setting.

For my part, I am interested in designing a digital humanities project that I can fully realize in the course of my time in graduate school, but that can be scaled up later if desired.  My starting point will be the collection of Stephen Black-related manuscripts held by the National Library of South Africa, which, from what I understand, is a significant but by no means unmanageable assemblage.  The challenge, however, is how best to present the texts of plays for which no definitive script exists, since Black was constantly revising and recalibrating his work.

M.I.T.’s Shakespeare Electronic Archive, founded by Peter Donaldson, is a fairly early but still very solid example of how digitized primary sources and their transcriptions can be presented side-by-side in a straightforward and user-friendly.  The chief shortcoming of the site is its incompleteness; the only Shakespeare play where the archive fully delivers on its potential is Hamlet, which even the “Collections” piece treats as something of a showpiece.  To be honest I was quite surprised, on first visiting the site, to learn that even a well-known and much beloved play like Midsummer Night’s Dream is only represented by one scanned Folger folio edition and its transcription, without any supplementary images or film.  this isn’t much of a problem from the perspective of studying Shakespeare; there are plenty of other online resources to consult, but for me it also serves as a cautionary tale—I don’t want to start something that I won’t finish.  Again: Shakespeare is hardly understudied, but when it comes to marginalized or semi-forgotten playwrights like Stephen Black or Gibson Kente, I feel an ethical responsibility to see my project through to a certain level of completion, not to leave it half-constructed in cyberspace because I had insufficient funding or a hankering to move on.  Donaldson has since moved to even more innovative work co-directing the M.I.T. Global Shakespeares project, which collects videos and scripts from Shakespeare productions and adaptations around the world, with a particular focus on Asia.  This spectacular multilingual enterprise successfully problematizes common Anglophone notions of what constitutes Shakespeare’s text, but I am still haunted by its older, still unfinished predecessor, which points to the perils of the internet: in traditional scholarship, a book or journal article would be either published or not published, instead of remaining in a kind of limbo state between the two (until possible deletion?).  It all underscores the importance of strongly committing to a project from the outset and setting realistic goals that can a team can actually follow through with.

Another issue is that the Stephen Black texts I plan to work with are manuscripts and not printed editions like the Shakespeare folios and quartos.  The basic trouble with Black’s unpublished plays (and also Kente’s, for that matter) is the lack of a definitive version of the text—a real issue, from the perspective of a director, since while many versions of a play’s script might exist, only one version can be performed at a time.  Stephen Gray’s solution, when he was editing three of Stephen Black’s most famous plays in preparation for their publication, was straightforward: he chose whichever version of the text he liked best, noted places where the text had been significantly revised in other versions with footnotes, and, in some cases, actually wrote in material where Black did not specify what precisely he intended.  The biggest example of this is the opening to Helena’s Hope, Ltd., which Gray says he reconstructed based on twenty-three “descriptive reviews,” and the Xhosa character Jeremiah’s telephone monologue at the beginning of Act II, which, he explains, entirely replaced the original comedic bit (his alterations to Helena’s Hope, Ltd. were more substantial since Gray actually mounted the play with a multiracial cast at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1981).[13].

A possible model for dealing with this problem may be Herman Melville’s Typee: A Fluid Text Edition, edited by John Bryant, an emeritus professor of English at Hofstra University.  Bryant’s scholarly interest in Typee, Herman Melville’s partially autobiographical account of a voyage to Polynesia, published in 1846, stems from the extraordinary degree of revision to which the manuscript was subjected by Melville.  Problematizing the standard notion that the only moment that matters in the life is the moment at which the final draft of a manuscript is handed over to a publisher, Bryant dives deeply into the versions and revisions of Typee in an attempt to reconstruct the process of revision at the most granular possible level.  Bryant’s contention is that by treating the even the micro-variants of a text as legitimate iterations of the text itself, a whole new world of appreciation for an author’s writing process might open up new vistas for inquiry.  Though the full fluid text edition is not available for free, a preview explains the system used for transcribing and presenting the text(s).  This undeniably exhaustive project incorporates the following components, according to the project website:

  • a full set of digital reproductions of the manuscript

  • a diplomatic, or graphic, transcription of the manuscript

  • a reading text (also known as the “base version”) constructed from the manuscript evidence

  • the text of the first print edition of Typee

  • the reading text with active links to more than one thousand revision sites

  • a set of revision sequences laying out each step of revision in a given site

  • a set of revision narratives explaining the strategies of each revision step

  • a powerful search engine for the reading text

  • a four-part introduction offering a rationale for the fluid-text edition, an explanation of its features and procedures, and a description of the manuscript itself. Also included is a historical account of the growth of Typee, its biographical context, its manuscript versions, and Melville’s creative process.

I truly doubt such an exhaustive set of tools would need to be applied to the Black corpus, but, even so, it would be interesting to take a deep dive into the revision process.  How might Black have changed his productions based on venue or location?  How did shows change over time (we know that in many cases shows of his received thorough rewrites, since they were fundamentally concerned with current events and had to stay fresh).  It’s also important, I think, to present the scripts in a way that emphasizes their fluidity—scripts for performance require different things than scripts for close reading, after all.

Textual fluidity as a premise could also serve an advantageous pedagogical purpose.  Just a week ago I was privileged to attend the 59th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association in Washington, D.C.  On the second day of the conference I was attended a roundtable on “Digital Literary Africa(s),” where Duncan Yoon, an English professor at the University of Alabama, presented on a digital annotation project called #nounsarestumps he was leading for a higher level undergraduate class on “Postcolonial Conditions.”  The project utilizes WordPress as a base and engages students in collaboratively annotating the St. Lucian writer Derek Walcott’s long poem The Prodigal with both text and images that help flesh out the many artistic allusions the author makes.  The abundant political and cultural content in Black’s plays Love and the Hyphen and Helena’s Hope, Ltd. (as well as Black’s 1920 novel The Dorp) inspired me to imagine a similar kind of annotation project working well in an undergraduate South African history survey.

The next step for me is clear: to get to South Africa this summer and find this archive, as well as any collections of material related to Gibson Kente that still exist (as Kente only died in 2004, I am sure there is material left in various places by people who worked with him, even if most of his own papers were destroyed in a fire.  Solberg’s biography of Kente notes that shortly before his death, a Gibson Kente Foundation was established with the stated goal of turning Kente’s house into a museum and collecting materials related to his career.  In its early years the foundation was chaired by none other than Duma ka Ndlovu, a protege of Kente’s and the creator of South Africa’s most popular soap opera, Muvhango.  As of 2016, however, the Gibson Kente Foundation does not appear to have any kind of web presence, nor is there any sign that these goals have been seriously pursued.  Building relationships within the South African theatre community is going to be crucial to my further progress.

Last but not least, it is important to note that there are two digital projects related to South African theatre that I will be watching with great interest.  The first is the established Encyclopedia of South African Theatre, Film, Media, and Performance, which is hosted by Stellenbosch University.  It has a long history, having been originally conceived as a print publication in the mid-1990s.  As the years went on and the project gathered steam, the amount of material collected became so unwieldy that publishers became reluctant to publish something so gargantuan.  So the encyclopedia moved online, into a wiki-style format (though this is somewhat deceptive; members of the public are allowed to contribute material, but are not allowed to make edits on their own).  There is some terrific information on the project site; its chief shortcoming is a lack of multimedia, even at the level of images (if there are pictures anywhere on the site, I haven’t been looking in the right place).  I would be very interested in getting involved with the encyclopedia if there are any opportunities to do so.

Another initiative, about which I know even less but am perhaps even more excited, is the Segopotso Project, announced via press release less than two months ago.  Supported by the South African Ministry of Arts and Culture,

The Segopotso Project aims to develop an electronic archive of South African theatre from 1976 to 2016. The archive will consist of synopsises of political and community plays; the history of venues where theatre has taken place over the past four decades; and profiles of people who have made theatre happen across the provinces. The archive will include photographs; interviews; and audio and audio-visual recordings.
There will be several volumes of play-scripts published over the years, looking at mainly but not exclusively at plays that have never been published. These publications will be presented free of charge to universities, colleges, and NGOs dealing with theatre studies, as well as libraries and archives, free of charge.

So far, all that exists of the Segopotso Project in the public domain appears to be this press release and an inactive Facebook page.  If the project does go somewhere, however, it’s absolutely something that I need to follow and consider involving myself with at some level.  Since the Grahamstown Festival captured my heart last summer I finally made significant progress, I think, towards figuring a way in to the history of South African humor and performance.  Before any technical considerations, however, I will need to build relationships with people, and this is what I need to set my mind to as the Fall 2016 semester becomes Spring 2017.


  1. [1]Herman Charles Bosman, Recognizing Blues: Best of Herman Charles Bosman’s Humor, ed. Stephen Gray (Cape Town, South Africa: Human and Rousseau, 2001): 15.
  2. [2]South Africa has eleven official languages, four of which are classified as Nguni (South African Ndebele, Swazi, Xhosa, and Zulu), three of which are classified as Sotho-Tswana (Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, and Tswana), two of which are classified as European (Afrikaans and English), and two of which don’t fit into any broader category (Tsonga and Venda).  According to the 2011 census, 43.3% of South Africans are mother tongue Nguni speakers
  3. [3]Quoted in Stephen Black, Three Plays, ed. Stephen Gray (Craighall, South Africa: Adriaan Donker, 1984): 12.
  4. [4]T. R. H. Davenport, South Africa: A Modern History, 3rd ed. (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1987 [1977]): 217.
  5. [5]Stephen Black, Outspan, September 14th, 1928, quoted in Jill Fletcher, The Story of Theatre in South Africa: A Guide to Its History from 1780-1930 (Cape Town, South Africa: Vlaeberg, 1994): 133.
  6. [6]Stephen Gray, “Introduction,” in Black, Three Plays, 30
  7. [7]Sandra Swart, “‘The Terrible Laughter of the Afrikaner’: Towards a Social History of Humor,” Journal of Social History 42.4 (2009): 890.
  8. [8] Rolf Solberg, Bra Gib: Father of South Africa’s Township Theatre (Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2011): 23-31.
  9. [9]Peter Larlham, Black Theater, Dance, and Ritual in South Africa (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1985): 70
  10. [10] Robert Mshengu Kavanagh, Theatre and Cultural Struggle in South Africa (London, U.K.: Zed Books, 1985): 138-139.
  11. [11] Herbert W. Vilakazi, quoted in Solberg, Bra Gib, 113.
  12. [12] Chris More, “Uncle Magnificent, Tribute, April 19th, 1989, quoted in ibid., 63.
  13. [13]Black, Three Plays, 257-258

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

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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.