Alexandra Sutherland

Title: Theatres of incarceration and radical freedom

Steve Biko, the founder and intellectual voice behind the black consciousness movement in South Africa, stated that his vision for the idea of Black Consciousness (BC) concerned restoring hope against a defeated consciousness that resulted from apartheid (Biko 2004 [1976]:127). Part of the BC agenda was to help people find a consciousness to escape from hopelessness and defeat, so that a state of hope becomes a state of resistance. In a post-apartheid context, Biko’s notion of a defeated consciousness persists within the gross inequalities that typify contemporary neo-liberal South Africa, and the many failures of the post-apartheid state. Arguably one of the most resonant dramaturgical backdrops to the violence that is part of South African life, is the grand narrative of crime, punishment, and the need to see justice performed. The performance of crime and punishment the world over, is the performance of the black body as victim and perpetrator of violence and trauma: specifically, black men are constructed as the spectacle of the many failures of society.

This presentation seeks to interrogate the meanings and possibilities of work-shopped theatrical performance with black men in two forensic institutions: a medium security prison and a forensic psychiatric hospital. In so doing, I argue for the possibilities of theatre making processes as a humanising, transformative encounter between different sectors of contemporary South African society, which could restore hope against defeat. In particular, the paper will examine my own ‘performance’ as a white feminist working with men convicted of violent acts, often involving gender based crimes. Using selected moments from our theatre, I will build a case for the possibilities of embodiment and theatrical play as a site where the institutional, docile, disciplined body is resisted. I also argue that the encounter between performer and audience embodies Kershaw’s notion of a ‘pathology of hope’ .

Baz Kershaw (1999) argues that performance can create a space for a radical freedom when engaging with systems of formalised power, and such freedoms are achieved through performative actions which oppose dominant ideologies and gesture to possibilities beyond them. This presentation will attempt to address his crucial question within the complexities of crime, punishment and justice that all South Africans are implicated in: ‘how do the practices of drama and theatre best engage with systems of formalised power to create a space of radical freedom?’ (Kershaw 2004:36).


Works Cited:

Biko, S. (2004). I write what I like. Johannesburg: Pan Macmillan.

Kershaw, B. (1999). The Radical in Performance. Between Brecht and Baudrillard. London; New York: Routledge.

Kershaw, B. (2004). Pathologies of hope in drama and theatre. In Michael Balfour. Theatre in Prison. Theory and Practice. Bristol: Intellect Books. 35-51.