BWW Interview: Five on Friday with THE FALL's Ameera Conrad
Ameera Conrad is having quite a year. Currently performing in THE FALL at the Baxter Theatre, a production about #RhodesMustFall and subsequent student movements, which she created with six of her fellow University of Cape Town (UCT) graduates, she will soon tour with REPARATION, the production she created as a recipient of a Theatre Arts Admin Collective's Emerging Theatre Director's Bursary last year, to the National Art Festival. She has been invited to attend the Lincoln Center Theatre Directors' Lab in New York in July, and will also be part of the Artscape New Voices programme. Having graduated from UCT's Drama Department with an Honours in Theatre-making in 2015 - earning a distinction for her efforts - she has also performed in DR GODENSTEIN'S MAN, WHAT REMAINS and PEOPLE BENEATH OUR FEET, and written a short play for ANTHOLOGY: YOUNG BLOODS. But for now, it is THE FALL that fills her nights on stage, this being a return season of the play following its presentation of a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award
David Fick: The response to THE FALL upon its premiere last year was electric. There are so many reasons why the piece managed the feat of capturing lightning in a bottle. Why do you think it resonated the way it did?
Ameera Conrad: I think at its core, the show comes from a very authentic place, and that's what people connected with. We didn't try to be too clever or too "arty" (whatever that may mean) but instead tried to focus on the real people that inspired the show - that is, the students of the UCT Student movement. Every rehearsal, every show, we had to remind ourselves who it was that this show was dedicated to and what it was that they went through, and also to a certain extent what it was that we went through. Apart from it being very topical a
nd of the moment, I maintain that its connection to the students and the realities of the struggles and joys of 2015 is what makes it such a special piece.
DF: The Baxter Theatre has been instrumental in the process of bringing THE FALL to the stage. What has it been like to work in that space, with its forty-year legacy in South African theatre?
AC: The Baxter Theatre and all of its staff have been absolutely incredible. I think I speak for the whole cast when I say that we're very proud to be able to work with such a supportive company of people and to be taken on as young performers and theatre-makers has been the best way to start one's career. We worked so well alongside the Baxter staff that it really feels like a home to us. We're treated as if we've been in this industry for years, but also taught how to navigate certain situations and events. And to know that we're part of such a deeply important canon of work to come out of the Baxter in its 40 years is really quite overwhelming - but in the best way.
DF: You've emerged as an edgy new voice in the theatre landscape since you graduated from the University of Cape Town. What has the highlight of your professional career been so far?
AC: I've had so many amazing opportunities that it's difficult to pick! I think my personal highlight was getting to work on WHAT REMAINS, which is Nadia Davids' new play. When I was in first year, I was told to read AT HER FEET, and I distinctly remember sitting in an armchair in Hiddingh Library and sobbing because for the first time in my life I was seeing characters that reflected me and the womxn in my life. As a Muslim, you're so used to seeing yourself portrayed as a terrorist or as a silent abused womxn, while in reality that's not even close to an accurate representation of the majority of Muslims in the world. That play followed me through university and so to be able to firstly meet Nadia (who's one of my personal heroes) and to also be able to act in a play written by her and directed by Jay Pather, who taught me in third year, and to share a stage with Faniswa Yisa, Shaun Oelf, and Quanita Adams (who was the performer in AT HER FEET and is also one of my professional baes) was just incredible. I think the highlight of that particular process was when Nadia and Quanita agreed that if the two of them ever had a baby, it would be me. I mean. Talk about heart exploding with joy.
DF: What do you think the biggest challenge facing South African theatre is at present?
AC: I don't think enough people care to listen closely. I think that's the big issue - everyone has their own ideas and opinions, and feels entitled to having them because, you know, freedom of speech and expression and whatnot. But a lot of the times one's opinions can be directly oppressive towards someone else's existence. I think that people just need to listen very carefully to what is being said, and not be so quick to dismiss things because "I'm entitled to my opinion, let's just agree to disagree". I take quite a hard line when it comes to that, because agreeing to disagree just allows people to think that their racism, sexism, classism, ablism, trans-, queer-, and homophobia are okay because "it's their opinion". I don't agree to disagree with bigots.DF: In South Africa at this time, we have a huge mix of theatre legends and inspiring new artists. Who is your South African theatre hero?
AC: I genuinely have so many, so this is really tough. Nadia Davids is probably at the forefront; AT HER FEET affected me in the most profound way and it's difficult to put fully into words what it is that I gained from reading it. She's also become somewhat of a mentor to me; we regularly chat, and it's great to have someone like her to bounce ideas off of because she's got a kind heart and deep wells of empathy so she can quickly understand what it is that you're dealing with as a person. Buhle Ngaba and Koleka Putuma are definitely two of my peer-heroes; they're unwavering in the intersection of their art and politics, and they're carving out a way for black girls in this industry which can be very hostile towards young womxn of colour who aren't afraid of speaking their minds. That makes me immensely proud to be able to work with them. When I went to KKNK this year, I saw THE SWAN SONG, which was Buhle's Uitkampteater piece, I was the only person in the audience that day, but she performed as if it were a full house at the Artscape Opera House. When the lights went off for the last time, I was sitting and crying, and she just jumped up and hugged me, and it was really, for me, a moment of true and unrestrained black love and black girl magic.
THE FALL runs at the Baxter Theatre until 24 June at 19:00 nightly, with Saturday matinees at 14:30. There is an age restriction of 16 years. Tickets cost R130 on Mondays through Thursdays and R150 on Fridays and Saturdays. There is a student special of R100 on presentation of a valid student identity card, with University of Cape Town students qualifying for R49 tickets - both only available at the Baxter box office. Tickets can be booked online through Computicket, by phone on 0861 915 8000 or in person at any Shoprite or Checkers outlet. For corporate, block or school bookings, charities and fundraisers, contact Sharon Ward on 021 680 3962 or Carmen Kearns on 021 680 3993.