Op-eds

The State Theatre: bullies in the wings

  • Geoff
Why would a professional who has given a whole career to the arts industry suddenly be deemed racist? On Sunday, I attended a performance by South African-born performance artist Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza at Pretoria’s South African State Theatre, accompanied by arts journalist Robyn Sassen.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Dec 12, 2019

Khoza is well known throughout Europe and elsewhere, and collaborates frequently with South African-born choreographer Robyn Orlin.

We expected to watch the piece as we would in any theatre, based on the criteria of theatres worldwide. This includes audience safety, production age limits, or where the exit is in case of emergency.

When we arrived at the State Theatre, however, we were confronted by a frightening array of experiences: as white theatre-goers, we were treated with obvious hostility; and the theatre is mostly in a state of horrible neglect.

Sassen is a veteran journalist who has covered the arts extensively for more than 20 years, including productions at this same theatre. She has written about its condition previously.

The work, Red Femicycle, which focuses on South African femicide and bullying, was hosted in an unusual space in the theatre complex. Ushers took us there via a convoluted route, which they clearly weren’t sure of themselves. Eventually we arrived at the venue’s appallingly shabby reception area.

It was clear that as whites, we stood out like a sore thumb. When I picked up my cell phone to photograph the room’s state, I was aggressively confronted by a black man who told me he hadn’t granted me permission to do that. I said we were from the media, this was a public place, and the pictures weren’t for publication but a record of the room’s condition. Others had also been photographing. I asked why he had confronted me, not them. At that moment, the work began. He threatened, “We will continue this afterwards!”

Sassen decided to write a story on her blog, www.robynsassenmyview.com, about the theatre itself before she reviewed the work. It was published and immediately went viral.

The next morning, one Maseko Sello, who according to his Facebook page is associated with the regional secretariat of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, said in one of several rambling vitriolic Facebook posts, “This Woman called Robyn Sassen is of no difference to a vulture of doom that is hovers over black lives … a scavenger that moves with great menace toward anything that represents black excellence!!! … we do not need an opinion of a bloody racist and bias agent …” [sic] A picture follows this text, of several angry-looking men, led by one holding a spear menacingly.

Clearly, Sello is only one voice. But on Facebook, responses get polarised in the face of controversy.

People publicly take a side or privately extend support by contacting one side or the other, as many did in the case of Sassen. Khoza and his cast went out of their way to offer Sassen support.

We come from a ghastly racial history. The ANC hasn’t yet learnt how to run a country, nor cherish the arts which it treats with disdain. It also hasn’t learnt to bring to book troublemakers and thugs who are embarrassing its good name – or what’s left of it.

The purpose of this article isn’t to make gross generalisations. It’s to present a snapshot of an incident which left a deep, troubling impression.

Arts journalism is already beleaguered as an important critical field of art making. Sassen says she will not review anything at the State Theatre again. It has, to date, not reacted officially to her story other than “likes” from Artistic Director Aubrey Sekhabi for some of the hostile Facebook comments.

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