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Tony Miyambo's burden of playing an ape in a post-apartheid SA

'Kafka's Ape' star Tony Miyambo explains the challenges of a black man playing an ape in post-apartheid South Africa.

Tony Miyambo performs in 'Kafka's Ape' at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda. Picture: Supplied

MAKHANDA - In a country where the wounds of apartheid still haven't healed properly and racism rears its ugly head more often than we need, stage actor Tony Miyambo has been faced with playing the role of an ape for about 11 years now.

Kafka’s Ape is a solo play about a primate’s struggle to overcome the confines of captivity, something many South Africans experienced until 1994.

Today, the K-word and referring to black people as monkeys is still a derogatory expression that has seen a few people appearing in court even. But for Miyambo, who takes on a metaphorical role of a South African society highlighting the complexities of identity in the post-apartheid country and in society in general, the challenges of the play are a burden he has been more than willing to carry.

He said: "Being one of the first black people to play the role has been challenging because there is anxiety around a black body portrayed as an ape. But that's a challenge we chose to take on because we knew that there is power in the way we can subvert the way people see and understand it."

Tony Miyambo performs in 'Kafka's Ape' at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda. Picture: Supplied

EWN Lifestyle had a five-minute chat with Miyambo after he performed Kafka’s Ape, the show that recently won a Prague Fringe Award, at the National Arts Festival (NAF) in Makhanda on Saturday.

We started off by asking why people should add Kafka’s Ape to their list of must-see plays at the NAF.

A: It's an exciting show; a reimagination of a classic text but in a pertinent South African and African context.

Q: What made you take on this role specifically?

A: The role chose me. We started doing the show about 11 years ago and the director wanted to do it for his masters, so he saw me and thought I could really do it. And I think each year of doing the show has been living up to that expectation. In many ways, the show chose me. What has happened over the years is that it has gained significance. When we were doing it in the early years it was before the xenophobic attacks and the likes of the Vicki Momberg case and now a lot of meaning has come to it.

Q: What message do you strive to send out every time you play an ape?

A: None. I always open myself up to the dialogue that people bring which is based on their personal experience. Some audiences take away a very strong kind of conservationist approach to thinking about animals. Some are able to identify the darkness in them to say 'I'm part of the problem'. But I try not to prescribe what people take away. In South Africa, we try to speak to the grey areas around how we view and treat each other.

Q: How has the reception been when you perform the play on other continents?

A: Good. I've performed the show on four continents that have multiple politics. I don't like to do comparisons but the Europeans have a theatre-going culture and that immediately translates into bums on seats and money in the team's pockets. When we were in Amsterdam, we were in the top five productions at the Fringe festival. So its been very well received and every time I perform it somewhere, it opens doors to perform it somewhere else.

Q: What do you think is the role of theatre in today's society?

A: Theatre is to tell the stories it wants to tell unapologetically. I think there's an unnecessary pressure on black theatre people that they must be the psychologist, social workers... They feel the need to speak to blackness in its entirety. I think the strength of theatre is to speak to specifics and detail narratives that affirm the people it references and gives a window to people that have no access to that world. It also has to be responsible and not feel like it has to carry the weight of societal changes on its shoulders. The theatre of today can tell more personal stories.

Q: How crucial are events like the NAF in growing the South African theatre industry?

A: I think there is no other platform where audiences and theatre-makers would engage with their peers on this scale. Unfortunately, we do have a problem in the South African theatre landscape that creates pockets of theatre in certain places. If you're not in Johannesburg, Cape Town and some parts of Durban, you don't have the access to the wealth of theatre that people are generating.

If you're in Makhanda, you can still catch the play on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as the festival continues. Otherwise, you can see Miyambo on stage at the Ubumuntu Festival in Rwanda and the United Solo Festival in New York this year.

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