It has been a little over a week since we left Johannesburg for participation in the Afrovibes Festival held in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. This is a wonderfully significant moment for AfriQueer as it is the first ever iteration showing in Europe.
The last few days have been something of an incredible whirlwind; seemingly smashing into one another with a frenetic and inexhaustible force of momentum and intention. Only now after the Amsterdam run are we finally catching our breath before embarking on the second leg of the journey to the other cities in a day or two.
Site specific theatre work is always an inspiring challenge; it is demanding and relentless in its requirement of the actors to constantly migrate and re-shape their imagining of the presentation as they accommodate the setting. The locale ultimately becomes a key character. I expected this dynamic, especially from lessons and takeaways learnt from previous iterations in Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa, and yet I was still, nonetheless, surprised by the particular challenges and offerings of Amsterdam.
Afrovibes is a Dutch arts festival that has been on for a number of years now (I think about 18) and it showcases African artists and artistic works, mostly from South Africa. Shows, exhibitions and workshops are programmed in the cities of Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam. This is, however, the first year that the Amsterdam leg of Afrovibes unfolded in a new space — an events/theatre/park area called Tolhuistuin, formerly the headquarters of Shell Oil company. This little fact dismissed as unimportant already suggested a fluidity of surroundings and heritage which excited me for what it could offer as a subconscious to our work.
One area of this former commercial estate has since been converted into a theatre and outdoor space which also functions as a park thoroughfare visited by the general public. Just a few minutes walk from the Tolhuistuin is the ferry landing that connects the more residential Amsterdam North to the larger, more city-like southern area. Every few minutes the ferry spills out people, mostly on bicycles and motorbikes, and they whizz past a road right next to the Tolhuistuin which forms a boundary line into another larger park area guarded by high-rising sentinel trees.
Being suckers for punishment, we decided to begin the performance in the smaller Tolhuistuin park area, move out into the busy road — cross it (a rather risky endeavor if you are leading an audience of about 30 people), and then journey to the larger public park area for the rest of the performance before looping back to Tolhuistuin. I am very aware writing this that it will read easier than what it was in actuality.
We stuck our teeth into the work after a brief and warm welcome from the producers and hosts. The critical task of the performers of acquainting themselves with where they were as quickly as possible began — a task made a little more difficult given that we were already dislocated by air travel. However, we stood in and immersed ourselves in all the possible sites so as to measure the rhythm and emotional temperature of the environment to figure out where the possibilities of shift and imaginative negotiation lay.
It was on the third and final night of performance in Amsterdam that I was once again reminded of the enchantment of this work. About 30 minutes into the show, I noticed a man walking his dog in the park stop to watch. The procession of audience and actors happened upon him and his dog and they must have both been curious about what was going on. He stood off to the side on a little pathway and watched from there. It was twilight and the crisp, autumnal light was fading fast so all I could see of him was his shadow and the white of the coat of his dog. The dog soon lost interest but his owner never did. He continued to follow the action as it traversed the park — always standing at a distance from the rest of the watching audience but always intently focused. He had, quite obviously, never seen his usual, quotidian park route transformed into anything of this sort.
It was a wonderful reminder of the purpose of this work; the wrangling with and re-imagining not just of space but of ideas and beliefs of identity and queer-hood, all in the hope that we can transport all of ourselves to a space of empathy, human connection and understanding.
~ Tlotlego Gaogakwe
Originally posted on Drama For Life blog