Written by Tamara Guhrs:
There’s something missing from this festival.
I’m feeling it as I walk Grahamstown’s quiet back streets, and I’m feeling it as I reach back into my space-time memory the way one keeps reaching into a handbag for a lost phone. I want it but it is not there. I look for it – it should be here, but its not.
It’s Reza, I miss her.
I miss her most now, because I am in Grahamstown and the possibility that I will run into her or that I may drop in for tea has gone forever. Perhaps for the first time since I had the news of her passing in January this year, it feels real. Like this strange hot wind on a festival Friday, it feels real but it feels wrong.
I think the whole festival misses her, but doesn’t quite know it. What is disquieting for me though, is the silence around our loss of her.
Shortly after her passing, when those close to her, those who had been privileged enough to have worked or engaged with her in some way were still reeling and bereft, Ismail Mohamed wrote in his weekly Herald column, “Where are the East Cape voices honouring Reza de Wet?” The column framed its lament in the context of lack of support for East Cape artists, noting that she was feted and celebrated overseas, while at home there was silence.
At home, the voices that would have been honouring her were those that were in mourning. I think that in the first weeks and months of losing someone, whose influence has been so profound, it is difficult to find the public voice, the show that articulates just what this loss has meant. Reza de Wet’s relationships and connections – with students, colleagues, and even audiences – were often marked by a fierce kind of privacy – they were one-on-one connections. Her loss was felt keenly, but as those of us gathered at her Johannesburg memorial came to understand, it was a loss that almost evaded a public face.
Time has passed now, and Rhodes drama department has launched a bursary in her honour. But the Festival, I’m noticing, has released no public or official message of remembrance. Reza was such an integral part of the artistic fabric of this town and this feels sad, it feels missing, it feels wrong.
Look, writers never receive as much fanfare as penis-painters and rockstars. Even reclusive playwrights. Even reclusive playwrights who are feted overseas. Reza de Wet’s contribution to the Grahamstown festival was not brassily, overtly obvious. But it was profound, and it was sustained, over decades. I’m also not suggesting that it’s the Festival organising committee’s job or responsibility to mark or celebrate the passing of every public figure in the arts, but I wonder that there is no message of acknowledgement in the programme, no retrospective of her work, when she contributed and shaped so much of the festival over the years.
When Reza passed, a mutual friend noted that it was like losing habitat, like when ecosystems become extinct. The passing of such a talent is like the loss of vast tracts of fertile soil. In the grasping for audiences and resources, the pressurised immersion in the production process that happens prior to festival, artists and organisers get squashed by deadlines and number crunching and output, by the need to fill houses and make artistic decisions that will help to do so. It’s easy to forget the kind of ethic that Reza embraced and lived. She revelled in the magical transformative power of theatre and its spiritual function for audiences.
I don’t think we can yet quantify the cost of her loss, but for me anyway, I feel as if an artistic compass has gone, and my moorings are out of kilter.
I just hope that there is something in the pipeline, some plan to honour her, whether a new category of award or a retrospective of her work. She left us too soon and we need to find ways to sustain the kind of magic she evoked.