Upcoming playwright and Fleur du Cap nominee Nwabisa Plaatjie brings her deeply personal story 23 YEARS, A MONTH AND 7 DAYS, which is set against the backdrop of the 2015 #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements, to the Fringe at the 2018 National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Plaatjie graduated from the University of Cape Town in 2015. The play was written during her theatre-making internship at Magnet Theatre in Cape Town in 2016, a direct response to the playwright’s experience in her final year as a student. 

Performed in English, isiXhosa and Afrikaans, the hour-long ensemble piece uses physical theatre and storytelling to portray the experiences of a single female student Nontyatyambo, who finds herself at odds with her environment. It is a powerful and potent individual account of a contentious, unresolved and ongoing socio-political issue in South African society. 

23 YEARS, A MONTH AND 7 DAYS shares its origins with The Fall, the frank, collaborative theatre piece created by seven of Plaatjie’s fellow graduates and that has since extended its reach international audiences in Europe and most recently New York in the USA. But where The Fall represents the experience of the collective, 23 Years tells of the individual. It introduces themes of migration and self-actualisation to the one of mass student movement and youth-led revolution.

In three sentences, who is Nwabisa Plaatjie?

I am a 24-year-old womxn, my grandmother’s granddaughter and from Ugie in the Eastern Cape. I’m a writer, a director and a theatre maker and I am extremely nervous about my first NAF staging! I’m an introvert who can be very awkward around people, but who also loves being around people.

What made you choose theatre?

There were no art groups in Ugie, but we had drama as a subject. Drama class was the place where I first felt recognised in a way that surprised me. I could see and feel the results of my efforts. Then Jacqui Singer prompted my move from acting to theatre making, encouraging me to try something else. For the first few years I called myself an actor in a theatre-making class. Then, in my final year, my peers were talking about the theatre I make, saying positive things. I listened.

23 Years, a Month and 7 Days / Photo: Vulture Productions

Photo: Vulture Productions

Your play, 23 Years, a Month and 7 Days, is set against the backdrop of the 2015 #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements. How or why did you choose this topic? And the title?

I was part of the student protests in 2015 and after graduating I spent my first professional year at Magnet Theatre as part of their theatre-making internship programme and had to create a new work and so I began processing, reflecting and trying to heal from 2015.

The ‘idea’ of 23 Years started quite open. I wanted to make something that would engage with my then recent experience of #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall. I was out of university but the protests were still ongoing and I was “seeing” things and recognising emotions that I didn’t see or recognise while in the midst of the movement.

The current title of the play was then the working title: I was 23 at the time, we had a month to rehearse and 7 is my favourite number. The working title stuck because of its relevance to the process, to the theme and to the content, some of which is indeed biographical. 

How have you experienced the progression from drama school to professional stage?

Being awarded the Magnet internship straight after drama school was a blessing. Magnet’s programme provides a physical space and structure, emotional and financial support, allowing the artist to explore, grow and create freely. I could create a new theatre piece without worrying about rent money. I could explore without worrying about failure or how to impress.

Furthermore, thanks to the Magnet Theatre network, the work I created was able to tour internationally. Following its Magnet première, 23 Years was performed at the Young Arts Fest in Erlangen, Germany last year. By the time it reached the Baxter Theatre Centre’s Flipside earlier this year, I was well prepared for the challenges of the professional workspace.

Still, it remains a daunting and at times overwhelming experience to “suddenly” work in the same spaces as the writers, directors and actors that one has admired growing up, and still admires. The same goes for NAF! I have to acknowledge and be thankful for this on a daily basis, especially because I was able to secure funding from the National Arts Council. Every day, I know I have to step up and work even harder.

23 Years, a Month and 7 Days / Photo: Vulture Productions

Photo: Vulture Productions

Your work has received some significant accolades in the three years since you graduated. What were they and how do you feel about the recognition?

In 2017, I was the first recipient of the Baxter Theatre Centre PlayLab Residency, which provided space and support for the creation of a new digital theatre script where I put the artist on trial via social media. I also received the Theatre Arts Admin Collective’s Emerging Theatre Directors’ bursary award and was able to successfully stage Reimagining The Native Who Caused all the Trouble.

Flowing from all this was a very welcome full-time day job as curator and coordinator of the Baxter’s Masambe Theatre, where I am driving its relaunch as a space for performance, collaboration and networking. Earlier this year, I was nominated for a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for Best New Director, an event which coincided with the first professional staging of 23 Years at the Baxter Flipside.

It has been a busy three years as one thing has led to another. For me, it has been important to remember that each achievement brings with it a new set of challenges and responsibilities that I need to interrogate and then embrace before allowing it to positively inform the next project or experience.

And what will be next?

I am constantly writing and collecting stories. The key ideas I jot down most often represent some level of discomfort. Once I get hooked, what follows is a journey to engage with, address and sometimes solve the discomfort. And to get others to join me in finding the human experience of the idea, some of these ideas are universal to everyone; pain, poverty, inspiration, self improvement, societal influences.

I am presently grappling with how black history is archived, specifically in museums. This has led to a devised performance piece at the Old pass Museum in Langa township which engages with history through immersive performance that uses the lived experience to contest, challenge and question history. 

Whatever comes next, my goal remains to find and to sustain my entrepreneurial capacity as an artist. It is not enough to create. One also has to communicate. And earn a living.

Your answer speaks of a true entrepreneur. Do you think that’s a skill one is born with? 

I always reference back to my grandmother and how she worked ‘smartly’. She was a vendor, sold fruit in the streets, cleaned houses on Thursdays and travelled to Durban at month-end to buy stock. On weekends she would sew. She knew how to diversify her income streams. She had entrepreneurial spirit. I got that from her.

We still tend to think actress-waitress, rather than actress-voice-artist-teacher-facilitator. I learned early that not getting it (the job) does not mean it doesn’t exist or it is not available.

What can the audience expect of 23 Years, a month and 7 days?

A deeply human story, one that rings true for every student not necessarily on the visible forefront of the ongoing #movements; and a physical and narrative performance par excellence, by an ensemble cast who is the product of one of the best if not the best and most innovative theatre-making entities in the country, Magnet Theatre.

The production is supported by National Arts Council and Magnet Theatre. It is performed by an ensemble cast of Magnet Theatre trainees: Beviol Swartz, Emmanuel Ntsamba, Livie Ncanywa, Luthando Mvandaba, Lwando Magwaca, Natasha Gana, Inge Isaacs and Zizipho Quluba. Design is Craig Leo.

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