Stillwater News Press

September 1, 2011

Oklahoma State professor shares South Africa research experience

By Silas Allen
sallen@stwnewspress.com

STILLWATER, Okla. — As with many aspects of South African society, theater there is in something of a state of transition, an Oklahoma State University professor said Wednesday.

Heidi Hoffer, an OSU theater professor and Fulbright Scholar, spent 13 months doing research in South Africa. Hoffer gave a lecture on her experiences Wednesday.

During her time in South Africa, Hoffer served as a guest faculty member at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, more commonly known as Wits University.

One of the characteristics of South African society that differs from the Western world is the heavy use of so-called community embedded theater. When using community embedded theater, she said, groups may use small-scale theater productions to illustrate a point.

For example, she said, the University of Pretoria recently received funding from the law enforcement community to do theater productions in prisons. Because of the demonstrative culture of South African tribes, Hoffman said, using theater to illustrate a point is as natural as making the same point verbally or through writing in the Western world.

Derina Holtzhausen, the director of OSU’s School of Media and Strategic Communications, agreed. Holtzhausen was born in South Africa, attended the University of Pretoria and worked in management in South Africa before coming to the United States. Holtzhausen said South African industry leaders are making larger use of industrial theater to educate and communicate with their employees.

“It’s a very natural mechanism to educate,” she said.

South African theater is in a “world of change,” Hoffer said, brought about in part by the social changes following the end of Apartheid — racial segregation. Other factors play into the change as well, she said, including large populations of rural South Africans moving into urban areas for work. They typically bring their tribal culture and traditions with them, she said, and those traditions inform South African art.

The mixture of Western culture with tribal traditions creates an interesting cultural fabric, Hoffman said, but occasionally, the two influences don’t work well together. For example, she said, a new production called “Shaka Zulu: The Musical” tells the story of Shaka Zulu, a 19th century leader credited with uniting a number of groups into the Zulu kingdom.

Shaka’s life is fertile source material for theater, Hoffer said, but the production was poorly executed. Instead of making use of the traditional music and dance for which the Zulu are famous, the production tried to superimpose Zulu-inspired dance over Western-style music.

“It just didn’t work,” Hoffer said.

Political transitions have made life difficult for the performing arts community in South Africa, Hoffman said. Before 1997, much of South Africa’s performance art was funded by four performing arts councils. As a result, Hoffer said, institutions like the University of Pretoria could afford to bring in artisans to work on theater productions.

However, after those performing arts councils were disbanded, many of those artisans, now in their 80s, were left without work. They generally didn’t have the education level required to teach in universities, she said, despite the wealth of knowledge and experience they possessed.

An upcoming project is seeking to bring those “treasures” back into the theater, Hoffer said. The Soweto Theater is a new performing arts facility expected to open next year in Soweto, a lower-middle class district in the Johannesburg metropolitan area. The theater is a part of an effort to bring the experienced artisans together with theater students, she said.

As it develops, Hoffer said, South African theater tends to deal more heavily with social issues such as AIDS and poverty. A major issue it addresses is the increasing rift between wealthy and poor blacks.

Racial conflict has long existed in South Africa, but with the end of Apartheid came a new class of socially mobile blacks, she said. As black people achieve economic prosperity and find their way into the middle and upper classes, they’re often met with resentment not from prosperous whites, but from poor blacks, she said. Because the issue is such a prevalent one in South African society, it’s fertile territory for theater and literature, she said.

“It makes them uncomfortable,” she said. “So we know it makes good drama.”

Heidi Hoffer's name has been corrected in this story.