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SPOTLIGHT: Nwabisa Plaatjie's directing vision takes flight at Theatre Arts Admin Collective

Barbara Loots


The multi-talented Nwabisa Plaatjie was recently announced as one of the 2017 Theatre Arts Admin Collective Emerging Theatre Directors Bursary (ETDB) recipients, offering her the opportunity to present her creative vision to the public with the adaption of the documentary play, The Native Who Caused All the Trouble.

A playwright and director with a passion for theatre in all its facets, Plaatjie is someone who embraces her inquisitive nature as part of her creative process, allowing experiences to inspire the way in which she brings a story to stage. “I’d define myself as a person who asks a lot of questions and prefers being around people that challenge me”, she shares. “My mentors have to be people that are not afraid to disagree with me.”

A strong and vibrant female theatre voice, Plaatjie definitely dares to dream, assuring that she is fully embracing this ETDB journey. “It is an opportunity to create an artistic product through experimentation, play and collaboration”, she explains. Along with this opportunity to truly test the boundaries of her vision by playing with the scope thereof in a collaborative space, Plaatjie also recognises the long term value, because “once there is a product, it’s often easier to search for a producer or places where the product could be showcased. For example festivals.” A tried and tested formula for Plaatjie, as that level of dedication recently saw her creation, 23 Years, a Month and 7 days, internationally staged in Germany at the The Young Arts Festival in Erlangen.

However, Plaatjie is not only a creative with great focus, she also wants to gift the world with stories that have substance and soul. The storytelling drive that characterises her theatre vision is strongly influenced by her family, culture and tradition. She sees herself as an individual with her our unique personal experience and perspectives, but also contextualises those experiences by viewing herself as part of a collective. “I come from a people that mend broken walls… ooNtsundu, ooMadiba are the ones who mend broken walls. That spirit of mending is embedded within me and is carried by my clan name, but before mending comes understanding. My stories are strongly influenced by my own experiences, the concept of identity, home, migration and the daily events/conversations that happen on a Harare bus from Khayelitsha to Cape Town.”

A true understanding of her roots and the message she wants to convey is therefore present in the directing style she brings to the stage. But one wonders, who informed that passion for narrative driven performance on a personal level … So the inevitable question follows, who inspired her to embrace theatre as a career?

“This question has been coming up a lot in interviews and I’m starting to realise that although I grew up in a small town with no Theatre spaces or community art groups, my school offered drama as a subject”, she reflects. “There are people that the arts industry may never know who really inspired me as a young learner. Thuliswa Nodada, Cebisa Makonjwa and Zilungile Maqubela were brilliant actresses and are part of the reason I chose the subject in high school. Lonwabo Nodada remains one of the most powerful writers that I know. She made writing seem so easy and because she shared her work and was also a very cool senior, she gave us permission to also access that part of ourselves.”

Plaatjie also takes great inspiration from her grandmother who taught her that “storytellers are gentle souls, you cannot tell a story when angry”. This message has become part of Plaatjie, shaping her as the storyteller she is today. “uMtshazi, my grandmother, who was a street vendor selling fruit and also a dressmaker, has influenced each and every aspect of my life”, she shares. “You will find her perspectives lingering in my work and sometimes they’re in conversation with my own opinions. In every piece I do, you will find her voice. I represent her hard work in someway and even though she is no longer with us, she continues to influence my storytelling style.”

Considering Plaatjie’s very people-centred approach to theatre, one soon realises that she has a fresh take on theatre as a powerful transformational tool. She however qualifies that her view of theatre is informed and contextualised by her personal point of view. “Firstly, as a person my growth is rooted in facing those things that I fear and/ or tend to shy away from. The theatre is often the safest space for that meeting to happen. Secondly, as a theatre maker, the theatre for me is a place where I must teach myself to experience what has become familiar in new ways, so after being in a safe space, I ask myself to go further than meets the eye and that is where transformation takes place. It first begins with me and my cast, but then it extends to the audience members and then to communities. Theatre does not have to make people think about issues they tend to shy away from but it needs to offer a safe space where different possibilities emerge and is thus transformational."

In similar fashion, although she is a playwright in her own right, she is challenging herself to experience theatre in a new way, having chosen to rather direct someone else’s work and words for her ETDB production.

“There’s an event within this play (The Native Who Caused All The Trouble) that has a very special place in my heart and it is also that event which attracted the playwrights to write the play. I appreciate them [Vanessa Cooke, Fink Haysom and Danny Keogh] for writing the play, because it introduced me to the event and they have also allowed me to engage with it. Essentially, we are all engaging with the story of Jim Mboya who refused to leave his land when he got evicted in 1937. He believed that all land belongs to God and cannot be owned by one man.”

Adaptations by nature are tricky though, as one has to repackage a play that already has an identity of its own. Taking on the task of directing The Native Who Caused All The Trouble, which premiered in 1986, Plaatjie is respecting the essence of the original, but also making it accessible to current day audiences.

“They told it in the 1980s as white playwrights and directors. I am telling it in 2017 as a black female playwright,” she elaborates. “I wanted to engage with that event that happened in 1937 but resonates so much in 2017, and the play is the one thing that offered me that. I have chosen the central event and explored it as much as I can. Many things have remained the same, but the lens in which it is viewed and narrated has changed.”

Ultimately, she sees The Native Who Caused All The Trouble as a play that can be described as “birthing unreasonable courage”. With this insightful perspective, Plaatjie hopes the play will resonate with audiences and leave them with an appreciation for “the theatre-making aspect of it, the craft and the skill. I also hope it allows each person to reflect on land from an embodied and gendered point of view and perhaps begin mapping their own personal journey with this land situation.”

With such a strong vision and her exceptional approach to storytelling, Plaatjie is a theatre maker who is sure to inspire many creatives to come, and she has a clear idea of the example she wants to set for them. “Ntinga Ntaka Ndini, it is an isiXhosa proverb, commanding eagles to fly. In the black community you hear it a lot from the elders, but as you become courageous in your path you start hearing it from your peers. Everyone is waiting for you to be great and we are commanding you to fly, Ntinga Ntaka Ndini.

Plaatjie is definitely flying and greatness awaits! Go be part of her theatre journey and witness her ideas take theatrical flight with her adaptation of The Native Who Caused All The Trouble at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective from 30 July to 5 August 2017. Tickets available online.


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