It's just us, guys: Hope and hilarity at the 2022 National Arts Festival

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“It’s just us, guys. This is the show.” Nervous laughter filled the mostly empty auditorium. Yaaseen Barnes had just walked onstage to start the inaugural performance of his solo comedy show “Can’t-centrate”. It was the first evening of the 2022 National Arts Festival in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), and we were all a bit on edge.

For one thing, the weather was miserable. It was freezing, which was no surprise –Makhanda is always freezing this time of year. No, the rub was that it was also raining, which felt like a slap in the face in a town where water doesn’t always come out of the tap. And, while I’ve experienced diffident drizzles in Makhanda before during the festival, that night it was raining with gusto. Perhaps that’s why there were only 20 of us in the Drill Hall, a staple festival venue which seats 200-plus.

Yaaseen started the show, and unfortunately his dry, one-liner style of comedy only intensified the sense of foreboding many of us felt. Masks and capacity restrictions were finally history after almost two and a half years of lockdown, but the abrupt and almost off-hand nature of the government’s announcement had left people wondering – could it really be true? Were we allowed to be here, carefree, barefaced? This was the first in-person National Arts Festival in two years; would it also be the last? And if people weren’t going to show up for theatre, dance, comedy and music in this strange little town, was there any hope for the arts in South Africa?

Street view (Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown) (photo: Robin K Crigler)

View of Beaufort Street (photo: Yaaseen Barnes)

I thought the show went well under the circumstances, but Yaaseen didn’t stick around to talk after it ended. Instead, he asked me to drop by the Village Green on Friday morning to see his podcast. He and two other Cape Town comedians, KG Mokgadi and Dalin Oliver, had been sponsored by an Opel dealership in Bellville to record one, and they had recruited two novice comedians, Abdullah JamJam and Kaashif Stellenboom, to handle the filming and editing. Abdullah and Kaashif quietly milled around for about 30 minutes, handling a mass of cords and cameras, while KG, Yaaseen and Kate Pinchuck shot the breeze (Dalin wasn’t in town yet), protected from the driving rain by a cavernous canvas tent. Aside from the vendors themselves, the Village Green – normally a hive of festival activity – was nearly abandoned. The comedic banter provided some temporary relief, but this thing still had nine days to go. The subtext to everyone’s smile was that if something didn’t change quickly, it was going to be excruciating.

That afternoon, with the weather refusing to improve, I reflected on the shortcomings of the festival so far while dodging puddles and potholes on the way back to my accommodation off Somerset Street. Some problems – like the lack of publicity, and Standard Bank’s withdrawal from the National Jazz Festival – came down to money, but others indicated a more worrisome misunderstanding of what makes the National Arts Festival great.

Gone this year, for example, was the physical programme, the most powerful symbol of the festival’s breadth and robustness. But the physical programme had always been more than just a symbol. Without it, gone were the days of eagerly combing through its pages, circling shows that sparked interest, and then walking down to one of the box offices to purchase physical tickets. Instead, this year, festivalgoers had to navigate an obtuse online system that doesn’t allow you to search for specific time slots and venues, making it hard to identify shows at short notice which could fill a two-hour gap in your busy diary of events. In my experience, some of the most memorable shows at the NAF are the ones you attend not because you recognised the play or the people beforehand, but because they’re happening close by at a time when you are otherwise unengaged. This is the bitter harvest of digitisation – when you optimise the system for people who already know what they want, the power of the NAF to “change you” (as all the billboards say) is what gets compromised.

The nadir of my NAF experience came later on Friday afternoon, when I filed into the Rhodes Great Hall to see the “Eastern Cape Ensemble”. A once-off performance every year, this event features singers, dancers and audiences mainly from the local area, and for just R50 you can be treated to some of the greatest talents of the whole festival. Today, however, there had been a miscommunication between the performers and the technical crew, who thought the show was going up at 8:00 rather than 2:00. We sat in our seats for an hour as technicians frantically hung lights and plugged in speakers as the performers paced impatiently behind the curtains, only to be told that load-shedding would be starting at 3:00, so could we please, please, please be so good as to come back at 5:30. The man who broke this news to us had his hat in hand and was deeply apologetic, but I had tickets for something else at 5:30, so I had no choice but to miss it. I’m told that when they finally came on, it was extraordinary.

Later that evening, when the rain finally stopped, my festival experience finally began to turn around. I met KG Mokgadi after his stand-up show, “NSFW – Not safe for woke”, and we went to the Highlander for drinks – KG, Abdullah, veteran comedian Chris Mapane and me. While Chris regaled us with stories of the Johannesburg comedy scene in the days when Trevor Noah was just starting out, Abdullah kept getting greeted by school buddies who alluded mischievously to his past exploits on campus. Once a rugby player at St Andrew’s College – just next door – Abdullah was returning to Makhanda not as a celebrated old boy, but in the humble guise of an opener comic, armed with five to ten minutes of material and a thick skin. He said little during our outing, but his silence was attentive and focused. Abdullah JamJam is going places only stand-up comedy can lead him to.

Comedy will humble you – this is a theme we kept coming back to that evening, and it’s unquestionably true. There is no stand-up without an audience, as comedians over the past two years have learned from bitter experience. Growth is actually impossible without completely embarrassing yourself. Dying is the word comedians use for those kinds of gigs, but it’s a crucial part of the process. As KG put it, “You have to take time to be bad.” That phrase has stuck with me. Maybe, after two years away, it’s worth applying to the festival in general.

At the “Very Big Comedy Show” later that night, it finally began to feel like old times. The Guy Butler Auditorium was full, at least at the orchestra level; Rob van Vuuren was hosting, and the audience was clearly in the mood to laugh. Comedian after comedian, from Rob to KG, from Stuart Taylor to Alfred Adriaan and Kate Pinchuck, absolutely killed – which, in comedians’ parlance, is the opposite of dying. I felt especially lucky to see an English-language set by Xhosa stand-up legend Siya Seya, whom I’ve never had the privilege of seeing in person. Afterward, a family visiting from Gqeberha quizzed me about the acts on stage, intending to book some of their solo shows. Even in the absence of a physical programme, word of mouth is finding a way.

On Saturday, the storm was well and truly gone, and weekenders had filled the Village Green. I started my day with the bewitching play Île by Sophie Joans, a hilarious and poignant exploration of white Mauritian identity, directed by the inimitable Van Vuuren. It’s the kind of show that makes me, as an American, wish that we had a tradition of arts festivals like Makhanda and Edinburgh that allow young artists to produce work like this which defies easy classification.

Sophie Joans in Île (photo: Eléjha-zé Gengan)

Later on, I bumped into Yaaseen, and he told me that “Can’t-centrate” was now completely different from the anxious performance I had seen on Thursday night – he’d completely retooled, based on his first performances, reordered the material and adopted a more consistent rhythm. He was smiling from ear to ear. Yaaseen has 25 000 followers on Twitter, but 20 people in Makhanda will humble you. You have to take time to be bad.

Comedians, from left: Kaashif Stellenboom, Abdullah JamJam, Yaaseen Barnes, KG Mokgadi and Dalin Oliver (photo: Yaaseen Barnes)

The next night, the comedians collectively decided to see Rob van Vuuren’s solo stand-up show, “Still standing”, which was on at 9:30 pm – during load-shedding. Because of the load-shedding, it was abruptly moved from its original venue to a place with generators, but somehow the word must have got out, because the new place was packed to the gills.

Rhythmically, Rob’s show makes daring choices that perhaps only someone with his past record of success at the National Arts Festival could pull off. While other festival comedians have lots of material about their marriages, Rob got divorced during the lockdown, and he talks about it. And, instead of ending the show with a crescendo of hilarity, he closes with a disturbing story about being hijacked with his daughter and ex-wife in Gugulethu. It’s a story that involves a gun, a child tangled up in a seatbelt frantically trying to jump out, and the strange intimacy of being manhandled by a maskless criminal after months of enforced social distancing. It’s a story that (without spoiling the ending) brought back those familiar feelings of fear and emptiness from the early lockdown, while leaving me with a strange sense of hope at the same time. We can still mourn the damage, he suggests, while appreciating the possibilities of an unknown future. We have a chance to rebuild.

In the late-night streets of Makhanda afterwards, the comedians moved as one large clump. Comedy legends like Rob and Stuart chatted and ambled alongside mid-career comics like Kate and Yaaseen and newcomers like Abdullah and Kaashif. People who hadn’t seen each other since before the lockdown, based in either Joburg or Cape Town, were reconnecting, swapping stories, swapping dreams. Several were playing European festivals soon, or saving for new cars, or thinking of starting new gigs. The lockdown had shuttered every dedicated comedy venue in the country, but even though many stand-ups have had to take day jobs, they are still hustling to jump onto line-ups whenever they can, and many of them were here at the festival. Someone said it’s like being at a summer camp; being here gives warm and fuzzy feelings, despite the load-shedding and the logistical problems and the lack of potable water.

People don’t come to Makhanda because it’s convenient to do so. As many have pointed out over the last 40-plus years, if the National Arts Festival were held in Cape Town or Johannesburg, it would probably be bigger and more lucrative. And yet, so much of its appeal is bound up in what it demands of its visitors – the endless traipsing around town, the pothole-dodging, the complexities of festival planning. Add in load-shedding, water problems and decaying infrastructure, and it’s easy to start to see the festival as a metaphor for South Africa itself. Sparks of hope and magic flicker out – illogically, irrepressibly – from the smouldering hull of the postcolonial condition. South Africa is not a convenient country, either.

I left Makhanda on Monday afternoon feeling optimistic about the future. Now that masks and restrictions are gone, it finally really feels safe to talk about rebuilding the arts sector. Next year’s festival – assuming it takes place – has no excuse but to be bigger and better. As comedians will tell you, dying is the process by which growth occurs. And, while this year’s National Arts Festival was undeniably smaller, boasting both highs and lows, in my opinion it’s vital that its organisers get the opportunity to rebuild. Before furrowing our brows or throwing up our hands about the decline of the NAF, we should consider extending the grace that we so often denied to others through these lockdown years. It’s just us, guys; this is the show. We need to take time to be bad.

Also read:

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Die Nasionale Kunstefees, waar oud en nuut vervleg

Ruk maskerloos op na die Nasionale Kunstefees!

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  • Dorothy Warner

    Loved every moment of 5 different years attending this festival. The variety of entertainment, astoundingly well organized, wonderful meeting people from all over the country. I hope it recovers.

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