Being one of the few Americans at The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa, I spent quite a bit of time answering the question: “What part of the States are you from?” Whenever I said Washington State, everyone always assumed Washington D.C. So then I had to correct them, saying I was from the West Coast. I’d say, “West Coast Best Coast. East Coast Least Coast. Don’t say that in Boston, or you’ll get shanked.” But even though Grahamstown isn’t on a coast, I think the NAF motto should be “Fest Coast Best Coast.”
South Africa ran from July 3-13 this year. The Festival is loosely broken up into two parts, week one and week two. My first show wasn’t til the 8th, so I didn’t get into Grahamstown until the 4th of July. July 4th is obviously known as the United States’ Day of Independence, but it’s also the anniversary of my grandma’s death, so every year I tried to have a G&T on that date (Gin and Tonic was my grandma’s drink of choice).
I spent a few days trying to get my ducks in a row for my first performance, which actually wasn’t that easy. My biggest obstacle was that the Festival Office had lost my posters. I ordered posters through a company in Port Elizabeth, who delivered them to the Monument (The Settlers Monument houses the National Arts Festival Office), and somehow my posters got lost in the shuffle. It took them a day to find them (and only at my persistent nagging, to the point where I actually just waited in their office and wouldn’t leave without the posters), which meant I had only one day to put them up before my show. Fortunately – sort of – I could only afford 75 posters, so I didn’t have too many to put up.
My first show was on Tuesday the 8th of July, and every artist/production has the opportunity to make their first performance free. I chose to do this for two reasons: the first is that I worked with quite a few people in the township when I lived in Grahamstown in 2011, and I really wanted them to come see my show, but I would have felt bad if they were forking over R50 to come see it. So this way, I could have a guilt-free way of having everyone come see my show. The second reason was because this was my first solo show at Fest, and I needed all the exposure I could get. By having a free first show, people could come see the show risk-free, and if they liked it, they could tell their friends that “It’s ok, this Halfrican! show is actually all right, even though you know nothing about the guy.” And it seemed to work: the first show was full – just a few tickets from “selling out” (can you “sell out” if it’s free?), and I had two other shows that were very well attended. I also had three shows that were not well attended, so it was half-and-half. (I learned from the Festival Finance Office at the end of the week that I actually did pretty well for a first solo-show at Fest. They said it usually takes a few festivals to build up name recognition and an audience.)
So – overall – I was quite pleased with the attendance of my show. The 50-50 score on attendance (3 full shows, three sorta empty shows) was matched by my score in the newspapers. I got one good review and one bad review. They came out the same day as each other, but I didn’t see the positive review until two days after. (And I’m glad I saw the bad one first, not the other way around!) I tried to brush off the negative review, because the reporter not only misquoted me, she also took me out of context. So the validity of her review – in my opinion – was suddenly called into question. Honestly, it’s totally fine if you diss me, but if you’re going to – get your facts straight. I won’t go into the details, because I don’t want to sound butthurt about it, but suffice it to say that I didn’t dwell too long on the negative review, because there was nothing true about the negative things she said about me.
But one of the best parts about the Festival was the chance to see many of my friends. First on the list were my hosts – I stayed with Andrew and Claire Hunter, and their daughter Nicola, for the entire two weeks I was in Grahamstown. Andrew is the Dean of the cathedral in Grahamstown, and that was my home church for me in 2011. Claire is a priest at the cathedral as well, so I got to see the Hunters at least once a week for the year I was living there, if not more. It was great to reunite with them, but honestly, we didn’t see a WHOLE lot of each other because they were running around seeing shows at Fest and I was running around DOING shows at Fest, so it was all a bit hectic. But we did have meals together here and there, and they are just such a lovely family. The only downside is that their eldest daughter Rachel was in England on a gap year, and so I didn’t get to see her this time around. Dumb.
But I got to see other friends like Richard Antrobus, and actor/performer now based in Cape Town, who was back in Grahamstown to do his own one-man show. He was my housemate the year I lived in G-town, and we because quite good friends. It was so great to catch up with him and here how the Cape Town life is treating him. I also got to reunite with friends from NatCaf (short for Naturally Caffeinated) – the improv troupe I started at Rhodes University three years ago. I did a guest appearance with them, and it was so great to be doing improv again!
And, of course, I got to see my good friend Tyson Ngubeni, a comedian now based in Joburg who came down to fest to perform some standup comedy alongside NatCaf’s improv show. But Tyson also opened for me, doing about 5-10 minutes of his own material before I came on. I’m grateful to him for warming up sometimes quite reticent crowds, and it made my job that much easier. He’s a gifted performer, and my only concern in having him open for me was that the audience would like him better!
In all, with six performances, a few guest appearances with NatCaf, and seeing a few shows here and there myself, I had quite the busy Festival. It was a great experience, and I’m quite please for my first go-round here at fest. I’m hoping to return again before long!
Meeting up with some fellow Yanks at Fest, watching some pantsula dancing, and chilling backstage before a show . . .
The first part of my week at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa
From Jo-burg to Nottingham Road, from Southbroom to Grahamstown. Rachael Neary is always hilarious. Especially when she puts animal dung in her mouth . . .
Tootling around Johannesburg, my first port of call in RSA.
I got to meet David Ives after a performance of "The Liar," which he wrote.
Hello from Grahamstown, South Africa! I have just finished up with the National Arts Festival, which was my “excuse” for coming to South Africa, and now I’m hanging around Grahamstown for the National Schools Festival, teaching improv workshops to 12th-graders from all over South Africa.
I landed in Joburg almost a month ago (holy fart! Has it been a MONTH?), and I spent almost two weeks in the City of Gold, staying with my lovely cousins Trevor and Ronwen (which my family affectionately shortens to Trevwen). I got to see friends old and new, people I’ve known essentially since birth, and friends I made the last time I was in South Africa. I also got to connect with family – my cousins Tess and Di, and my first-cousin-once-removed Janezo (technically my MOM’s cousin, but no one’s really keeping track) and her family. So much of why South Africa feels like a second home is because it houses almost all of my extended family (I do have one batch of awesome cousins in England). I have no extended family in the States whatsoever, so it does indeed feel like coming back to the Motherland – where my family all started (even though my sister and I were born in the States).
I also got to see a bit of improv while in Joburg. I saw the Jittery Citizens – Joburg’s one and only professional improv troupe – perform at the Market Theatre. My friend Rachael Neary made her professional debut with this troupe, and I was there to witness it! It was long-form improv (Armando-style, for those of you who keep track of these sorts of things), and it was good to see such quality improv sustained for more than just one game’s worth. And for me, it was always going to be worth the price of admission, because Rachael snagged a free ticket for me. Fortunately, it was wayyyy better than the price of admission!
I was amazed, though, at Joburg’s lack of transportation. Had I not bummed a ride from Rachael’s parents, I would have been at a loss as how to have gotten home. The few busses that run in Joburg stop around 8pm (which was when the show started), even on weeknights. And there aren’t exactly cabs that float around waiting to be flagged down, like in NYC. And the “taxis” in South Africa are much more like shuttles – they have preplanned routes, and you have to find one that’s going to your part of town. And walking at night in Joburg is basically equivalent to running into Compton with cash falling out of your pockets yelling into a megaphone: “Mug me! I’m unarmed!” So if you don’t have a car, you don’t really go anywhere after 8pm. I’m amazed that a city as large as Johannesburg doesn’t have any viable public transportation. This is one prime example of how it’s a second-world city – definitely developed and not 3rd-world, but it has a LONG way to go before it’s a first-world city.
My mom always says that she’s “from Joburg, which is a good place to be from.” I’m not gonna lie, I definitely felt like that when I left Johannesburg two Sundays ago. Rachael and I drove out to stay with some old family friends of mine in a nature reserve outside of Nottingham Road. It was fantastic to be out of the city, out in the sticks, taking deep breaths of clean air that didn’t feel like it’d give you asthma twenty minutes from now. We stayed with a school friend of my mom’s named Sarah (who we call Suki, NO idea why . . .), and her husband, Colin, and her son Andrew. I hadn’t seen Andrew or Colin since 2002, because they were away on a fishing trip when I last visited. But I had seen Suki’s other sons my last time in South Africa. So when I saw Andrew, for some reason I was expecting to find the five-year-old I had met the last time around. So my exclamation of “Holy hayballs!” was quite justified when I saw a massive, athletic 18-year-old with biceps the size of Wisconsin.
Surprises aside, we had a wonderful few days out in the boonies, walking through dry but beautiful countryside. Rachael and I proceeded from Nottingham Road to Southbroom, where my generous cousin Janezo owns a holiday home that she let us stay in. Southbroom is on the East Coast of South Africa, just south of Durban, in the province of KwaZulu Natal. I have dubbed KZN the “Florida of South Africa.” It’s always warm, even in winter, it’s always humid, ad it’s where all the rich white people have holiday homes. On our way to Southbroom we had to go through Durban, and if KZN is the Florida of South Africa, Durban is definitely Miami. We didn’t get two blocks into Durban before we were caught in a traffic jam. To be fair, this traffic jam was caused by a union strike that was making national news. Rachael and I were listening to the radio, and the newscaster mentioned something about the “municipal strikes in Durban have gridlocked the city and the fear of riots has . . .” and we were like, “DEUCES!” I cut through four lanes of traffic, which by South African standards is rather tame, and got out of the gridlock. Once we were off the street where the strike/riot was happening, we were fine, and we cleared Durban quickly, and made it off to Southrboom.
Rachael and I spent an amazing few days in the warm climes of Southbroom. The house is incredible: it has a fantastic garden, it’s five minutes from the beach, and it has Janezo’s artistic touch all over it. Sorry, did I turn into a realtor in the last two paragraphs? Guys – this house is not for sale, sorry. But it is amazing. And I am blessed enough to have stayed in it for two days, enjoying the warm Florida (ahem, sorry, KZN) weather. And from Southbroom, Rachael and I ventured forth to Grahamstown, braving the streets of Mthatha. Everyone warned us not to go through Mthatha, not for our safety, but because we’d be sucked into the traffic vortex that would consume our lives. No word of a lie, it took us 45 minutes to move four blocks. AND THERE WEREN’T EVEN MUNICIPAL STRIKES AND/OR RIOTS! That’s just the norm. You must just know, that if you’re driving through Mthatha, you must budget 45 minutes for those 400 meters. It’s insane. It’s because nobody freakin’ knows how to drive! They don’t care that it’s a red light and they’re blocking an intersection! It was green two minutes ago! So I’m going to sit in the middle of the intersection while YOU have the green light, preventing you from progressing, because I just don’t give a flying font about the rules of driving. Holy buttface, it was infuriating.
Eventually we made it to Grahamstown, but I’m too exhausted to talk about it after reliving my Mthatha experience, so I’ll save it for the next post, neh? Shap-shap!
Some downtime with the lovely lady before flying out of the country!
An Actor. In New York. Whaaaa?