Confronting religious intolerance

2013-05-14 00:00

ACCLAIMED South African playwright Mike van Graan believes that South Africans need plays that tackle issues, provoke debate, challenge personal comfort zones, and allow for individual and collective catharsis. His play, Brothers in Blood, does exactly that.

The Naledi Award-winning play — which can be seen in the Playhouse Loft Theatre, in Durban, at 7 pm on May 16 and May 17, and at 2 pm and 7 pm on May 18, as part of The Playhouse Company’s New Stages Season — is an explosive drama about prejudice, and is set within the volatile context of Muslim, Jewish and Christian relations in Cape Town.

Asked why he wrote the work, Van Graan said: “In the late nineties, Pagad [People Against Gangsterism and Drugs] was very active in the city of Cape Town. It started as a group that wanted to take on crime and drug lords, but started to be seen as an organisation run by militants. This view was strengthened when a series of bomb blasts happened in the city.

“There were a lot of tensions between Jews, Christians and Muslims, which was reflected in the letters’ columns of local newspapers. To try to address this, the city organised the One City Many Cultures festival. I was approached to be the director of the festival and that’s where the seed of an idea for creating a play was planted.”

The play’s name is a reference to the fact that all three religions have a common link in Abraham, and also that all religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism — have blood on their hands. But for Van Graan, the play is less about conflict between different religions than it is about prejudice towards people of other races, genders and sexualities.

“Even within a group, which may feel discriminated against, you find prejudice. For example, Abubaker Abrahams, the Muslim father who is suspicious of his daughter’s Somali boyfriend, Fadiel Suleiman. They are both Muslims, but there is still prejudice because of ignorance of the ‘other’, those who cause us anxiety and fear,” he said.

Van Graan admits that many people were concerned when he said he planned to write a play about the relations between Jews, Muslims and Christians.

“Almost without exception, eyebrows were raised, breath sucked in and feet shuffled uneasily. It’s as if the subject is taboo, the theme that cannot be mentioned, a topic too dramatic and volatile in real life to be explored in theatre,” the Cape Town-based playwright said.

“But it shouldn’t be. This is the kind of subject that we need to embrace and talk about.”

Brothers in Blood is set in Cape Town in the late nineties, when Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities were trying to come to terms with a changing society, violence, xenophobia, gangs and drugs.

The play’s characters include:

• Fadiel Suleiman (Harrison Makubalo), a Somali exile who has been driven out of his home country, only to meet with hatred in South Africa;

• Muslim school principal Abubaker Abrahams (David Dennis), who has lost his wife and a grandchild to gang violence and is desperate to protect his youngest daughter, Leila (Aimee Valentine);

• Jewish doctor Brian Cohen (David Dukas), whose five-year-old son has been terrorised by a Pagad march; and

• the fundamentalist Reverend Lionel Fredericks (Kurt Egelhof), who has lost a son to drugs and has a daughter who has rejected his faith and married a Muslim.

The play makes a very simple plea: for human beings to cross religious and racial boundaries and to get to know each other as people, so that relationships are based on knowledge and respect, rather than ignorance and prejudice.

Directed by Greg Homann, Brothers in Blood was performed at The Witness Hilton Arts Festival and the National Arts Festival last year — and Van Graan revealed it will be returning to Grahamstown this year. It is one of four productions he is staging at the festival.

Also on the NAF programme is Rainbow Scars, a play about a white suburban woman who has adopted a black daughter and the challenges they experience. “The play is a metaphor for the country 20 years after democracy,” said Van Graan.

He is also staging Panic, a one-man play starring Siv Ngesi, which deals with the topical issue of climate change, and Writer’s Block, which centres on a writer who left South Africa in 1997/98, and has struggled with the concept of truth and forgiveness.

Like all his works, these plays are thought-provoking, something Van Graan makes no apologies for.

“There are two kinds of theatre — plays that allow us to escape from our reality and plays which allow us to confront it,” he says. “I believe that people should be given the chance to think and be emotionally challenged.”

Tickets for Brothers in Blood cost R65 (R35 for students and pupils under 18) at Computicket.

• The New Stages Festival runs at the Playhouse from May 16 to May 25. It includes a new locally produced drama, Culture Clash, as well as revamped, high-energy performances of Worlds Apart.

Booking for the productions is through Computicket or the Playhouse box office at 031 369 9540.

MIKE van Graan graduated from the University of Cape Town with a BA honours degree in drama and a higher diploma in education.

He has served in leadership capacities in various cultural non-government organisations, including as director of the Community Arts Project in Cape Town, director of the Bartel Arts Trust (BAT) Centre in Durban, general secretary of the National Arts Coalition and, most recently, as the general secretary of the Performing Arts Network of South Africa (Pansa).

One of South Africa’s most prolific playwrights, Van Graan won the Fleur du Cap Award for best new script for his trilogy Dinner Talk in 1998, and the Jury Award for best script at the Pansa/UCT Drama School Festival of Reading of New Writing for Green Man Flashing in 2003.

His other works include Mixed Metaphors, The Dogs Must Be Crazy, Two to Tango, Some Mothers’ Sons, Bafana Republic and I ago’s Last Dance .

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