This year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre is Amy Jephta. She is a playwright who has also built a reputation as a filmmaker, activist and academic. A champion of theatre by and for women, she has been a driving force in local and global initiatives promoting opportunities for female playwrights.
Looking at your career so far, everything you have done — from theatre (Kristalvlakte, Other People’s Lives, Flight Lessons) to scriptwriting (Ellen Pakkies Story, Soldaat) to activism (founder of the African Women Playwrights Network and chair of Women Playwrights International) — seems to be centered very much around the telling of stories. What is it about storytelling that you find so irresistible?
I am a storyteller. It’s my first calling and my primary drive. Over the years, it has taken many forms: whether it is collaboration, working by myself, or enabling others to tell their own stories. I think stories allow us to make sense of our world and of other human beings. It engenders a sense of empathy and understanding. Storytelling is a natural extension of being human; it’s very instinctual for all of us. I feel privileged that I’m able to do it for a living.
You work across many different media, from screen to stage. What keeps pulling you back into the theatre?
Theatre keeps finding me! I think there’s something about playwriting and the medium of theatre, its ‘liveness’ and the sense of collaboration, that will always be exciting to me. Theatre was my training ground. It was where I started learning and practising the craft of writing. Even as I’ve moved on to other mediums, I’ve returned to theatre when I’ve needed to sharpen myself again. Out of all the mediums I write for, I find it the most difficult.
Much of your focus is on female-led stories, on championing theatre by and for women, including editing a recent collection of plays by African women for Methuen. What are the challenges and possibilities faced by female creatives on the continent right now?
Possibilities, more than anything. It’s an exciting time to be a womxn writer on the continent. We are pushing for ourselves and carving out spaces where there were previously none. This includes in publishing, in film, in visual art and yes, in theatre. While I acknowledge that there are always challenges — accessibility, gatekeeping, and so on — I am more enthused by the future than ever before.
All Who Pass, the play you will be staging at this year’s Festival, swings between a family’s eviction in 1974 to the restitution in 2019, when a daughter returns to claim her inheritance. You wrote the play in 2013 so why have you chosen to stage it now?
I’ve been waiting a long time to stage this work, and the Festival is an ideal opportunity and platform for the play. I chose to set it in District Six as it is close to my family’s history, to my own history, and of course to my identity as a South African. It’s a painful wound and one that has festered year after year. The pace of restitution for families who were dispossessed from that land is still alarmingly slow. I’m always afraid that the stories of those former residents will be forgotten; subsumed by the passing of time, by the news cycle, by the next political emergency. I wanted this play to be a reminder. The Land Areas Act did just change single families, but affected generations afterward. I think it’s important to keep remembering that. Land restitution in this country has a long way to go. I see it as part of my job to keep the human beings in that story, front and centre.
You have acted as a mentor to community theatre groups in KwaZulu-Natal as part of the Twist Theatre project, were part of the South African New Plays Writing Programme at Wits, and a lecturer at CityVarsity in Cape Town. What do you think the value is of mentorship?
Mentorship has been such a key part of my own career. It’s invaluable. It serves as a way of gaining access to spaces that are often closed to young creatives. It can be hard to figure out where your ‘in’ is when you aren’t hooked into someone who has been there before. I’m excited by the boldness of young creatives in South Africa. So many risks are being taken. It’s a dynamic, exciting time to be making work.
Winning the SBYA Award is the latest in a string of accolades for you, including being the first national recipient of the Baxter Theatre/TAAC Emerging Theatre Director. What do awards mean to you and to your career?
Awards are a confirmation that you are being seen, that your work is being witnessed and influencing something, shifting the temperature in some way. I don’t necessarily enjoy the public-facing part of awards as I prefer to move in silence, to do my work without having to talk about it, so a part of this is uncomfortable for me. But I do recognise it’s important, that I represent not only myself but my ‘tribe’, as it were. A community of womxn of colour in this creative space rests on my shoulders, the same way I looked up to certain womxn when I was younger. Awards confirm that I’m doing the right thing.
As we know, you like to be busy! What are you working on next? Any exciting collaborations in the future?
There are multiple balls in the air. I’m currently on a three-month stint in Los Angeles, developing a TV project through a programme called Imagine Impact. I’ll be focusing on doing a lot more TV and film over the next year. I’m also working on a musical and a new play that will hopefully find life in South Africa and abroad. I produce TV and film full-time through my production company, PaperJet Films.