BWW Interview: Five on Friday with Themba Stewart, Writer-Director of RED ALOES
When Themba Stewart's new play, RED ALOES, opens tonight, it will be a key moment in a long journey that began, for him, in the wake of political violence in the early 1990s. Drawn from his experiences as a child, RED ALOES follows a young man who discovers a box containing an assortment of letters, police reports, statements and murder diaries that relate to his mother's death in 1993. The play shines a spotlight on a time in South African history that is subject to what Stewart calls a contemporary "social amnesia". Having graduated from the University of Cape Town with a degree in theatre-making, Stewart has amassed directing credits such as IMPERFECT BELT, LISTEN THE RIVER and SUNFLOWER EYES and worked on projects with Mark Fleishman, Jennie Reznek and Jay Pather, amongst others. Together with Richard September and Iman Isaacs, both award-winning local actors, Stewart is finally able to bring to the stage a story that he has wanted to share for years.
David Fick: You've been thinking about making RED ALOES for a long time. What made this the right time to tell your story?
Themba Stewart: I have been thinking about the show for a long time. What makes this the right time to tell it, is three factors. First, that I felt I needed the time to develop my understanding of the theatre world and create connections. Through the years of work as a freelancer and through working with the inspiring directors at Magnet Theatre, I feel like I have gained the skills and insight I need. I am lucky to have the dedicated actors and the space in which to explore and create this show. Secondly, the youth in South Africa have lifted their voices in the last few years. Revisiting the ideas of our freedom and transition with a critical gaze and looking at where these concepts leave us today. So I think people are more ready to deal with this subject matter. Lastly, the money. I needed capital to put the production on. Thanks to the funding from the National Arts Council, I am able to make this dream a reality.
DF: The Magnet Theatre is such a great space. What does it mean to you to premiere this work in a theatre venue that represents such an immense creative history?
TS: It is an honour to be premiering RED ALOES at Magnet Theatre. The artistic directors are mentors to me, who have taught and inspired me for many years. The space itself is constantly fueled with creative energies, from the professional company to the exciting new work created by the students in the space. The immense creative history, connected to the space and the company, inspires me to want to make a new show of the same high standards.
DF: You've worked as a production manager for Magnet Theatre, directed productions and run multiple shows and local festivals. What has the highlight of your career been so far?
TS: There have been many highlights over the years. Right now it would be the creation of RED ALOES, which is a culmination of my professional life in the industry. Others include working and travelling to all parts of the globe with Magnet Theatre and the years I worked on the Infecting the City Festival, being Technical Manager for the last few. Mainly it has been the ability to watch and learn from inspiring established creatives, by working directly with them. These include Mark Fleishman, Jennie Reznek, Jay Pather, Mandla Mbothwe, Jane Taylor and Lara Bye, amongst many others. Equally inspiring has been working in festivals that showcase young artists and new work.
DF: What do you think the biggest challenge facing South African theatre is at present?
TS: Theatre in South Africa has many challenges, ranging from funding, to skills development, to audience support. I think one of the biggest challenges is to create the idea in youth and funding entities that theatre has worth - that there can be a direct connection between theatre and social cohesion or understanding. The ability to tell stories and listen to others points of view or challenges - not just academically, but viscerally - with the direct access to live bodies telling stories that either differ from ours or reflect our own, should never be underestimated.
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?
TS: The word hero is a tough one as it implies a glorified title put onto someone. That said, I think the practitioners that inspire me and I aspire towards are a mix of young and old. I respect the Magnet Theatre directors' work (Mark Fleishman, Mandla Mbothwe, Jennie Reznek). Shows like EVERY YEAR, EVERY DAY, I AM WALKING evoke a visceral response in me, which I believe is the heart of theatre. Jay Pather's work is thought-provoking, highly visual, yet gives space for personal interpretation, which inspires me. I have enjoyed Neil Coppen's work from TIN BUCKET DRUM to ANIMAL FARM, as well as Penny Youngleson's varied works. New artists like Nwabisa Plaatjie, Thando Doni, Koleka Putuma are Iman Isaacs are pushing theatre in interesting directions and I believe are creating the new generation of Cape Town theatre makers.
Red Aloes will run on Wednesdays through Saturdays at the Magnet Theatre in Observatory, Cape Town, until 12 August at 20:00. Tickets cost R70 on Wednesdays and R90 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Ticket for students and pensioners cost R60, and a block booking rate of R50 per person is available. Tickets can be booked at Webtickets. There is ample parking available next to the theatre.