A compelling double bill comprising of Florence and Wine in the Wilderness, currently onstage at the Baxter Theatre, have been carefully chosen to pay tribute to the evolving black woman who should not be defined by a single, limited image or narrative. Both plays were penned by American playwright Alice Childress, who was a beacon of hope, known for opening doors for many black playwrights, actors and producers.
Rising star, theatre-maker and director, Nwabisa Plaatjie, brings to life these two beautiful plays as part of the Baxter Theatre's women's month celebrations. She shares some thoughts on the creative process and the impact Childress' plays still have today.
1. As a powerful young voice in the theatre-world you’ve already showed yourself to a have a very clear vision and style in your approach to story-telling. How would you describe your approach to theatre in one sentence?
I stage provocations, which force you to talk back, it doesn’t matter what the content is about, you’ll want to talk back.
2. How does Alice Childress’s style of theatre speak to you as a theatre-maker and your personal approach to storytelling?
Her plays depict the evolving black woman. Her heroines are pushed by self-determination and carve their own identities. They decide who they want to be and will not be limited by the definitions of others —I’m learning to be that. There’s also something about the way she writes that’s very affirming Her own journey as a playwright is inspiring; in one of her archives she notes that no one was knocking on her door asking for plays, but she kept on writing, trusting that one day someone would find her work and stage it… and here we are, staging Florence and Wine in the Wilderness, in South Africa. That self-determination encourages me to keep writing even if no one is looking for my work because it will serve a young storyteller in the future.
3. Florence was Childress’ first play (produced in 1949) with Wine in the Wilderness (produced in 1969) following twenty years later. Florence reflects many themes (black female empowerment, interracial politics, working-class life, and attacks on black stereotypes) that set the benchmark for how Childress spoke to racial and social issues in her later plays, such as Wine in the Wilderness. With Childress sadly passing in 1994, the same year that marked the birth of South Africa’s democracy, how do you think the two plays thematically speak to each other, while also revealing the evolution of themes that remain very relevant for our current day South Africa?
I think more than anything they show the experience of being a black woman and how activism for us often begins with us looking at how white privilege and racism limits us, and just as we overcome that we realise how problematic the black male gaze is. The two plays are linked by their feminism to challenge racism, sexism and classism, as you get to experience some of the challenges that woman face when they have to engage with white people and when they have to engage with black men and black intellectuals —it’s always a struggle.
4. Childress was also a writer of children’s literature. What about her voice for you stands out as the magical element that makes her writing relatable and relevant to people of various ages and all walks of life?
She understands the underclass, uneducated black person and celebrates them beautifully. We don’t have enough plays about the underclass in South Africa; we certainly don’t have plays where they’re the heroes and have their own agency and start contesting the low expectations that society has of them. Florence is the only play that I know with a black protagonist that is not even on stage. She’s the subject matter, the entire play is about her, but she’s not one of the character’s on stage, though the character is alive, chasing her dreams. It’s also the only play I know where being a maid becomes a point of contestation and sparks the main conflict. Childress knows that a hero ain’t nothing but a sandwich…she’s lived with poor black people, she knows them intimately and fights any story that does not portray them as complex beings. She understands what being a black actress means. Anyone who enjoys Florence and Wine in the wilderness needs to read Trouble in Mind… any black actress in Cape Town will relate deeply to the characters in that play. Wedding band: a love hate story in black and white is also brilliant. Her work is also not for the faint hearted; you need to know your business as an actor in order to be able to handle her text. Perhaps that’s why she’s so relatable, she knows how to create complex human beings.
5. What about the creative process in bringing Florence and Wine in the Wilderness to the stage has excited you most as a young theatre-maker?
Directing a text written by a black woman. I’ve directed a few original texts and did an adaptation. It was the first time I was engaging with a text where I couldn’t change anything and that has been exciting. Never have I been so delicate and sensitive with a work of art. I did so much research; I really left nothing to chance.
6. What have you personally taken away from the process of unpacking these two plays with a multi-talented cast?
The importance of creating safe spaces and archiving your process. I think I’ve developed a directing system for myself, and I now feel like I have a formula for directing texts —we’ll see in my next production how effective it is. But, my cast exposed me to various ways of engaging with text and understanding that each actor is different.
7. If you had to describe these two complimentary plays in two sentences to capture the uniqueness of each, how would you convey the essence of Florence and Wine in the Wilderness respectively?
Florence certainly feels like a quiet scream; the desperation of the characters can be heard in their moments of silence, as is also contained in their gestures. Wine in the Wilderness is an engaging soccer match; you only stay because you want to see the final score and there’s tension at every moment —you will be frustrated, you may threaten to stop watching the match, but with any good match, you’re interested in that final score… how will it end?
8. For you personally, what is the most powerful statements made in both Florence and Wine in the Wilderness? What about the characters uttering these statements feeds into the power of the words that jump off the page and onto the stage?
In Florence, it’s a statement made by mama- ‘keep trying’. I don’t care what you’re doing as a young person, just keep trying, you can be anything you want to be.
For Wine in the Wilderness, I might just end up quoting half the play. I think the one that most resonates with me though is when Tommy tells all the other characters that she doesn’t have to wait for anyone to tell her she’s a ‘wine in the wilderness’ woman; she can be it if she wants to and she’s it. While affirmations from others are important, it’s also important to be able to affirm your own goddamn self and look after yourself, because no one can do that for you. These words also encourages the actors to keep trying and to affirm their own goddamn self. A lot of people will come watch the play, maybe some may not like it or may feel the direction or the acting wasn’t good enough, that’s okay, that shouldn’t shatter us. We keep doing what we do to do, telling the stories as truthfully as possible.
9. What would you like audience members to take away from Florence and Wine in the Wilderness?
Light. Love. Kindness. Unity. Brilliance. Creativity. Joy. Black talent. Generosity. Lightness. Positive vibes. Fun. Contagious fun. Self-determination. Play. Inspiration and encouragement. Our strongest point as a cast is our humility… take that.
10. Childress said: ‘I continue to create because writing is a labor of love and also an act of defiance, a way to light a candle in a gale wind: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was God.". ’ With the written word being such a powerful medium to address issues people would otherwise shy away from, what does theatre as a lifestyle mean to you in giving voice to communities and embracing the power of the storytelling?
I think it’s a place of reflection. It’s that place you go to when you want to see how you are human(ing). How you relate to others and how they relate to you. It’s a mirror… often showing you how you handle difference. An aptitude test measuring your tolerance or intolerance for different things. I think the more stories you consume, the more you’ll know about yourself, your beliefs and your creative tastes.
Florence and Wine in the Wilderness run as a double bill at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio until 13 September at 7.30pm and booking is now open at Webtickets, online at www.webtickets.co.za or at any Pick and Pay store.