October 28, 2005

Sex, ultraviolence shake up S.African theater

By Rebecca Harrison

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Rape, murder, pedophilia and rare
male nudity on the conservative African stage -- no wonder
South Africa's hottest playwright is credited with
revolutionizing theater in his homeland.

Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom is part of a growing cadre of
young black South African artists smashing through African
taboos to portray in theater and film the ultraviolence and
explicit sex they say reflects real life in the country's
roughest townships.

"After apartheid died some people were scared, they were
shying away from showing black people in a bad way," said
Grootboom. "I try to fight against that. An artist should tell
about what he sees."

The 30-year-old writer is luring a new generation of black
theatergoers to his plays, which mix English with township
slang peppered with expletives, and tackle the rainbow nation's
dark underbelly, including the twin scourges of AIDS and crime.

His latest play, "Relativity: Township Stories," a tale of
moral decay set in a generic black township, notches up 10
on-stage murders, each one marked with an item of clothing hung
on a washing line.

Met with howls of delight by the mostly black audience, his
last play "Cards," set in a Johannesburg brothel, was one of
the first African plays to feature male nudity -- no mean feat
for a black director, says Grootboom.

"It is very difficult to get a black actor to take off his
clothes -- it's a taboo, they worry what their parents think."


"Cards" and "Relativity" follow last year's controversial
play "Tsepang," based on a true story about the rape of a
9-month-old girl.

Commentators also note similarities with "Tsotsi," a South
African film tipped for an Oscar nod about a gangster from
Soweto, South Africa's most famous township.

Having grown up in Soweto, Grootboom says he should know
about violence. His cousin is in jail for rape and murder and
he modeled the villains of his two recent plays on his own
darkest desires.

"I identified with the serial killer in 'Relativity' -- for
a long time I used to feel like that. I am emptying out some of
my frustrations," he said.

In "Cards," he felt closest to the character of a brothel
owner who tries to buy off a corrupt judge with the body of a
14-year-old girl and summarily murders one of his prostitutes
for refusing to have sex without a condom.

"I enjoyed saying some of the bad things I feel," he said.

But Grootboom says he has had enough of real-life violence
and wants to keep the murder and intrigue for his plays.

"I have been exposed to a whole lot of violence, maybe I am
trying to deal with that. I don't go back to Soweto, it is too
violent, 12-year-old boys will kill you for your cellphone."

He is toying with three storylines for his next play, one
of which focuses on extreme racial violence in Johannesburg's
city center.

"I have some doubts because I want to stay away from
violence for a bit," he mused. "Maybe I will write a nice quiet
love story instead."