Scholar Hopes Anthology Of Plays Illuminates Status Of Black Women

March 04, 1999

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Nearly a decade after the dismantling of apartheid, one group of South Africans is still struggling for recognition. That group, according to University of Illinois theater professor Kathy A. Perkins, is black South African women.

The women's voices just became dramatically louder with the publication of "Black South African Women: An Anthology of Plays," edited by Perkins and issued in the United States in January by Routledge and in South Africa by the University of Cape Town Press. The compilation of six full-length and four one-act plays -- by men and women -- represents a wide spectrum of women's experiences. Abuse, disappointment, identity, racism and sexism are present in the stories, but so, too, are themes of resilience, resistance, survival and liberation.

"My hope is that this anthology, one of the first to focus exclusively on the lives of black South African women through drama, will contribute to the reader's understanding of the position of these black women," Perkins wrote in the introduction to the book. "This anthology fills a major gap, since the majority of published plays on South Africa focus primarily on men."

Perkins said her familiarity with South African theater dates to 1979, when she met a group of South African exiles who were studying in the United States. Her interest in the arts, culture and politics of South Africa grew in the 1980s, when she worked as a lighting designer on several New

York-area productions mounted by South African artists. With revolutionary change sweeping across the South African landscape -- starting with Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990 -- Perkins said she couldn't help but wonder what role black women were playing in the unfolding drama.

"I began seeking some answers in the dramas of the old and new South Africa, but discovered there were very few plays that dealt with the role of black women, and even fewer written by black women," she said. To uncover those stories, which Perkins was convinced were there, she decided to go directly to the source. In 1995, she made the first of four trips to South Africa to connect with female playwrights and encourage them to share their stories with the rest of the world.

During those visits, Perkins met a number of playwrights whose works were being produced, though not on the same level as work by the playwrights' male counterparts. She also discovered that cultural factors accounted for the women's limited exposure beyond South Africa's borders.

"I learned that in traditional South African cultures, women were primarily storytellers, and, as is typical throughout Africa, the oral tradition dominates in theater. Traditional theater in black South Africa is designed for performing and not primarily to be written and published."

Compounding the playwrights' visibility problems, Perkins said, was that "censorship under apartheid contributed in part to the lack of plays by blacks in general." Actors often possessed only sections of a banned script, to prevent the complete work from reaching government officials, she said.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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