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It’s 2015, yet two white men grace the cover of the Festival programme. One of them is dressed as a woman and one has his hand in a puppet of a black man – but still. It’s transgressive,  rogressive and regressive at the same time. Transgressive, because much of Pieter Dirk Uys and Conrad Koch’s undoubted comedic force comes from the ways in which they trouble the boundaries of gender and race through their characters, Evita Bezuidenhout and Chester Missing. Progressive, because their bodies of work reflect their commitment to thoughtful politics, and challenge their audiences while they entertain them.

But it’s regressive because, well, again, they’re two white guys; members of the demographic of our creative economy that have historically
been offered the most institutional support, media coverage and popular acclaim. (Something that, as part of that demographic, I can attest to.) Chester and Evita are the figureheads for this year’s Festival Featured Artist, which, curiously, is not an artist but rather a genre: the fuzzy art of satire. Perhaps it tells us something of the state of our country – and the world at large – that satire should be championed as the most important thing happening in the 41st year of the National Arts Festival.

The recent murder of staffers at Charlie Hebdo – the French satirical magazine and purveyor of controversial, often racist cartoons – obviously still sticks in the mind, while Chester Missing’s 2014 court victory against harassment charges from ideologically-suspect singer Steve Hofmeyr was seen as a legal victory for unfettered public criticism.

But while it’s an offbeat choice on the Festival’s part, it is still kind of vanilla, both in flavour and appearance. Surely the value of freedom of expression and freedom of artistic creativity – as it is enshrined in our Constitution and quoted on the Festival programme – lies in the vast diversity of the arts in South Africa, as they are represented in the hundreds of productions happening in Grahamstown this year. Satire can take a multitude of forms and offer a wide spectrum of philosophies and perspectives to diverse audiences. But, unfortunately, the Festival this year envisions it as the domain of white men, whose philosophies and perspectives are already hegemonic in the arts, however depreciating, self-aware or seemingly transformed they become by inhabiting someone else’s identity.

Even if it’s an understandable choice, in the end it might feel like something of a missed opportunity, particularly as satire is present in the Festival programme year on year. Both Evita and Chester will fill Grahamstown’s theatres one hundred times out of one hundred –for good reason, as they’re genuinely great at what they do. And their presence on the programme is valuable, especially for their affirmation that identity is flexible, and that you do not have to be bound by the body into which you’re born.

But even so, we should also think about how the Festival can re-imagine who the emblems of freedom of expression in our society are – after all, satire is only one flavour of expression. Might it not be more of an artistic statement to look past the obvious?

Nick Mulgrew

Cue co-editor


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Consol glass lamps along the aisles, a cursory smidgeon of shadow puppetry, a small video projection left of stage and a white frock in a glass box are among the props that confound this dance tribute to outsider artist Helen Martins, known for her Owl House in Nieu Bethesda.

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Last year the Mzansi Youth Choir reached new heights when they headlined the Aarhus Vocal Festival (AAVF), Europe’s largest contemporary vocal festival. This year, continuing from that success, the choir performs at the Festival for the first time.

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Meshack Mavuso leads the cast of Marikana - The Musical.  (CuePix/Alexa Sedgwick)

It’s 11:30 am. Marikana the Musical will start at 2:00 pm, and in the interim the cast, crew and director are hard at work.
“One, two… One, one, two,” rings out over the empty seats. A sound check is in progress. It’s cold in the theatre, so everyone is bundled in heavy coats and knit hats. A man jogs in place to warm up.

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Socialising at weddings can be a bit awkward. Meze, Mira and Make-up, St Andrew's Studio 2, National Arts Festival, Grahamstown. 6 July 2014.

Makeup on, teenage angst activated and social awkwardness intact, Tarryn Popadopoulas Louch as Greek adolescent Mira leaves an audience in stitches. Meze, Mira and Makeup is a one-woman show looking at what it is to be a Greek woman from Roodeport.

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Ofentse Motsamai in a scene from Mother of All Eating at NG Kerk Hall. Photo: CuePix/Kendal Quicke

Review: Mother of All Eating & Heita Daa!

Twenty years of democracy means different things to different people, and playwrights are no exception. Two dramas on the Fringe this year, Mother of All Eating and Heita Daa!, bring vastly different perspectives to the anniversary, with the former focusing on the negatives and the latter trying to take account of the positives.

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You might dismiss the children’s story of The Three Little Pigs as a benign parable told to children about making solid plans for rainy days – or for days when wolves abound. James Cairns, Rob van Vuuren and Albert Pretorius, under the direction of Tara Notcutt, brilliantly disabuse you of that from the outset of this innovative and fierce play. Don’t bring the littlies – this is no fairy tale.

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Charl Blignaut has won the National Arts Festival (NAF) and Business and Arts South Africa (Basa) Arts Journalist of the Year award for the second year running, but is conflicted by the triumph.

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Socratic dialogue was not what I anticipated from local media brand Blah Ze Blah. But seated in a smoky bar at the Victoria Hotel, beat-boxer Sinethemba Konzaphi and “tech guy” Desmond Gambiza talked me through the philosophy that guides a movement seeking to examine life within the Eastern Cape.

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The seats were full of expectant festival-goers, but the stage remained empty.

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