“It’s crucial for us to create plays that sound like the people they speak of and about” – a Q&A with playwright, director and storyteller J Bobs Tshabalala
Nal’ibali Column 31: Term 4 (2018)
By Carla Lever
Congrats on your new publication – “Khongolose Khommanding Khommissars” is quite a title! Can you tell us a little about what it’s about?
Enkosi kakhulu for the congratulations, I really do appreciate it. This is an incredible milestone for me, and for my organization Kiri Pink Nob. Seeing also that it is my debut publication, makes it even more special for me and my team at large. So, for us, this is truly a moment!
“Khongolose Khommanding Khomissars” is a heightened period piece, only the period is very recent and very South African. It’s actually the playscript of a political satire we performed, written in what we call “Comrade-Speech” – elevated language synonymous with the Black South African aspirational discourse in the political and academic spheres.
As a young Black playwright, I think that it’s crucial for us to create plays that sound like the people they speak of and about. It’s incredible how people have taken to the first ever staging, and now, the publication. It is an important shift that we are proposing here!
It’s often a challenge to get plays published for a wider audience to read and stage them. We have powerful and interesting new theatre being made in South Africa, but are we doing enough to preserve and promote the scripts?
A simple, answer… No! We’re not doing enough – far from it. Amidst all the excuses there are some valid reasons, though.
One: some of our most interesting theatre, is physical, not text-based narrative, so it seldom translates to being a strong script offering.
Two: In the case of well written plays that are as engaging as performance texts as they are literary works, the question of commerce enters. Why spend some money on publishing for a market that I know will not spend any money on reading?
Three: There is very little collaboration between actors and publishers in South Africa. It’s a gap that needs to be closed, and my partner Monageng Motshabi and I intend to do just that! I can continue listing the ills, but my answer holds: NO! NO, we are not doing enough. Far from it!
What was your experience of self-publishing? Do you have any tips for people interested in doing the same?
It was glorious: an absolute dream! Hard work, yes. Kodwa, it was a very beautiful experience.
Monageng “Vice” Motshabi of diartskonageng is my co-publisher. This experience was such a pleasure because he and I gave it the time that it needed and we worked on it diligently at our own pace. He’s published independently before, so he knew the ropes and was more than generous in showing them to me as the process unfolded. Above all else, it’s his generosity of knowledge, contacts and spirit that made this experience so delightful.
For those who are keen to do the same, my best advice would be find someone who is equally passionate about the project and pursue it as a collaboration. Having that other person makes the brutal parts of the journey easier to endure and overcome. People should not mistake self-publishing as a synonym for “I did everything by myself as a solo project” – that’s a dangerous narrative around being independent. That’s not what it means at all.
Do you think there’s been a cultural shift where we’re telling – and listening to – our own South African stories enough, or do South Africans still tend to be more interested in international plays, books or films?
In the spaces that I operate in, the shift is tangible. People are demanding local content, and many are even demanding it in indigenous languages. That said, we need to compete for market share with the international players who have way more money than we do. What they spend on marketing one product, is what we spend on making ten, so a long way is still to be travelled when it comes to making our stories the products of choice (for the middle-class market, that is). In the working classes however, South African content is treasured. This is where I am looking to play mostly.
Your theatre work has often explored the ways we understand – and misunderstand – each other in South Africa. What interests you about this?
I’m very interested in the ways that I understand and misunderstand the country and its people. In the many ways that the country and its people understand and misunderstand me. South Africa is incredibly rich with heightened complexity and complicated nuance. I aspire to make work that captures that, so that its signature is unique to Mzansi as a character and my brand of theatre as a creative undertaking. What an amazing offer it is to be a theatre practitioner in a land that is this fertile with gems of content, concepts and people so ready to engage!
You’ve been very innovative in the ways you’ve chosen to explore socio-political issues with people. Can you tell us a little about your successful use of the game show format to draw people in and make them question their own cultural assumptions?
The Game Shows are gold for me. They took me very long to create and refine, and I feel as though only now am I getting to the heart of what they really are about and for.
Their success is based on rewarding our connections more than our divisions. On highlighting similarities in the veil of exposing our differences. On being scathing in a way that is cathartic for all, and on being funny in a way that is laughable only to our national humour. They are about using theatre to explore the theatrics of our reality.
Kodwa, my proudest achievement is that they have been made what they are by the multitude of South Africans who have witnessed them. Audiences have co-authored this journey with me, and at best, I have been very attentive and careful to be their dedicated scribe and dramaturge. It honestly feels like a commissioned work, by the people. I love doing them. The Township one, and The Suburban one – as I call them. They are triumphs. They remind me that South Africans are ready handle any concept that you may throw at them, as long as you trust them with it, they will delve in deeply.
Why is storytelling – whether through film, theatre, books or poetry – an important way for us to connect and explore our histories and realities?
It is a true monument of who we are as a people, in the time that we live in. Of all the stories to be told, the untold South African story is the most critical of them all. We want to talk about us now. We are ready to hear ourselves. We have watched as the world fantasize about us and we’re done with that!
How can people get their hands on a copy of your book?
From me! The book costs R150 a copy. In Gauteng, I deliver. In other parts of South Africa and the rest of the world, I post, which costs extra. Drop me an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit: www.nalibali.org.