A Conversation with Nwabisa Plaatjie

Theatremaker, actor and director Nwabisa Plaatjie was recently named as the recipient of Theatre Arts Admin Collective’s Emerging Theatre Director’s Bursary as well as the first recipient of Baxter Theatre’s PlayLab residency program where she will produce her new play Inceba Yobomi/The Grace of Life. In 2016, she debuted two new productions at Magnet Theatre; AHA! and 23 years, a month and 7 days, both of which travelled to Germany following a successful run in Cape Town. 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

Strangely no one. I’m from a small town called Ugie and there were no art groups. We had drama as a subject but I always felt drama class was the only class where I felt affirmed. I told my parents, “I think I want to pursue that career” but it was only because I felt a certain way in that class. It seemed like my efforts were recognised and the results were better than all the other classes. My parents said no and I felt that was a good challenge and I kept begging. Eventually they gave in and I’m here. Maybe one day it’ll all make sense why art but it began from feeling affirmed in the drama class.

What was it that made you want to apply for the Emerging Theatre Director’s Bursary?

I’ve seen work produced under the bursary program but I’m also constantly on the look out for opportunities. I constantly go on the arterial network’s website and then this particular one, I think Jaqueline [Dommisse] sent the link and I was like, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to apply for it.” Then I applied but I have always seen their work and gone, “This is cool. Maybe one day.” 

Photo credit: Chris de Beer

What was the application process like?

It was relatively easy. You just had to know what you wanted. You just go with a vision. Then you send through the application. Then they reply and tell you if you got the bursary or you didn’t. What is weird is that I applied with Thando [Mangcu.] She got the call while walking with me. Before, I was telling her, “When I get this call I’m going to cry. I’m serious. I’m going to be like thank you universe.” We are having this conversation and then she gets the call, “You got the bursary award.” And only an hour later, I am in a bus going home, still a little bit sad about it but yay it’s Thando. I get the call and I’m waiting for them to say it, because I know the winner and I know they probably called the other winner 10 minutes after Thando, and they say, “I just want to tell you that you got the bursary award.” 

What can you tell us about the piece that you are going to create?

It’s complicated. I’m adapting a piece so we were still contacting the necessary people. I don’t want to say and then it all turns out [that I] can’t adapt the piece. I still have to check with Caroline about what the writers have said and if they are giving us the rights to adapt the play.

Photo Credit: Chris de Beer

What was the process like creating 23 years?

I had this opportunity to be an intern at Magnet Theatre and they mentored me for the entire year. They were just offering two theatremakers a space and funds to just work creatively and they were there just giving us all their resources and support. For the first term there I created the early years work AHA! and then for 23, I wanted to make something that would engage with my experience in the Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall movement. In my graduation I made a piece which mainly tackled the protest in someway but now it was a year later and I was out of university. I was starting to think about it in another way from an outsider perspective because the protests were going on. I was starting to see some things that you don’t necessarily see when you are with them and you are still angry. I wanted to engage with that but at the same time, I didn’t want to write a protest play. I remember saying to Mark [Fleishman], “I think this is my last protest play. After this I’m not doing anything else about protest.” And then he said, “But what do you want to say?” I was like, “I still don’t know but I think this is the last time I am doing a protest play.” I don’t know. I am going to see. I think it’ll be protest theatre in some other way but I really wanted to engage with where I was at as a person in the light of everything that had happened in the last year and engaging with my own traumas. When you experience something like that, it is very important. We hardly ever talk about what we experienced. People who came to see the play, it allowed them the opportunity to reflect but I was mainly doing it for myself and trying to make sense of it.

I find that last year was very exciting for theatre in general mainly because of all the events that have taken place within those movements. Do you feel a certain pressure now because you contributed work that contributed to that theatrical landscape?

I think I do. I’m also in the process of writing another play where I deal with that kind of pressure. I’m dealing with a lot of things this year. I’m dealing with the pressure that may come from creating work that has such impact but I am also dealing with meeting the criteria and what that might mean. If you look at anything that is coming out now, it is my criteria. They are looking for a young black womxn. They are giving the opportunity to us. I am dealing with those things. The protests had a huge impact on my life and I haven’t unpacked everything that happened. I keep engaging with them in small doses. It’s like getting those opportunities, it’s like something is expected also. You’ve made a political play engaging with things, now it’s like I can’t just make a play that is not relevant and I start to feel the pressure. I think I do feel it but I think after this play that I am writing now, it’ll all make sense because I am really engaging. I like engaging with where I am at and what I am experiencing. What I realize is that I’ve grown. I am not necessarily going to say something that resonates with the people who I resonated with a year ago because I have experienced new things. I may say something that I thought I was not going to say a year ago and I think I am engaging with those things now and dealing with that.

Photo credit: Chris de Beer

What do you find to be the challenges that young theatremakers are facing?

Making a living. I think you can get opportunities to make work but it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be able to pay rent or you will be able to buy your food, but it doesn’t mean that you won’t make the work. Most of us are making the work. We are on stage but that doesn’t mean that it is being turned into a financial gain or something. I think that is the biggest struggle. I think we’ve gone beyond funding. In the past, people didn’t have funding and then they couldn’t make work. Now you get the funding but you struggle to pay rent, you struggle to make ends meet but you are making the work.

Photo credit: Chris de Beer

Two of the bursaries are being awarded to black womxn this year. We seem to be at quite a tipping point for female voices…

There’s a question that I get many times, “What does it mean to be a black womxn?” I often say, “It only means something when I want something.” In an ideal world I am not black and I am not a womxn. Yes, it is good that we are getting these opportunities. Sometimes I don’t like the binaries. There are days where I don’t want to be a womxn because being a womxn comes with its own limitations [and] cultural barriers also. Just by saying I’m a womxn, I am already ascribing to a certain way of living and you don’t have to but I can’t run away from what society has told me about that gender identity of being a womxn. In most cases, I don’t want to be a womxn but I understand that there are missing stories and I’d like to tell those stories but I don’t necessarily want to be seen as a womxn. I think it comes a lot from the movement because the binaries also realised that they are quite exclusionary. I think it stems from my own experiences and also being friends with non-binary people. Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable with this because it excludes a lot of people and a whole lot of stories.

I often sit down with women who tell me that they constantly get asked, “What is it like to be a black womxn in theatre.” Why do you think it keeps getting asked?

I think it goes back to that fitting the criteria. I think it’s a consequence of being given an opportunity because when you look at the calls they say that they are looking for a black womxn. Surely that means something and people kind of assume that means something for you too. In some degree, it does. If you look at how womxn have been silenced and that moving on is also very exclusionary, not to males necessarily but to non-binary people.

What is the work that you would like to be remembered for?

Photo credit: Chris de Beer

I don’t think I’ve created it yet but I also think AHA! the early years theatre work. I think it is a play where I am not necessarily wanting anything. I am just present. The kids love it and the adults love it. You play with yourself, you are comfortable, you are not trying to impress. You are not sending a message. It is just people connecting. I think I’d love to make work like that where I am not necessarily saying something but people get a meaning from it. If it’s not AHA! I don’t think I’ve made it yet.

What are the stories you feel you gravitate towards as a theatremaker?

It is quite weird because I wouldn’t say I’ve seen a lot of theatre but I watch everything and I have many interests. The work that I personally make has to do with what I am experiencing at that time period.

What are your hopes for the rest of your career?

I want to make work and not worry about how I’m going to pay rent. If I could just do what I do and the finances are just taken care of and just allow me to make the work and then in the process my rent is paid, my life is paid, I get to have fun, I get to go buy clothes, I get to dine, I get to go on an adventure trip. It is not just about theatre. Yes, I love theatre but there are many other interests, many other Nwabisas. All those things shape my work.

Photo credit: Chris de Beer

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?

Nomakrestu Xakathugaga. She is a singer who taught herself umngqokolo, that throat singing. She is amazing. She is a musical genius. I love her. Babalwa Makwetu [of] Lingua Franca. She also does the things for me. Thandiwe Msebenzi is a visual artist. She makes me want to collaborate with other visual artists. Age of the Artist, young people who are trying to make things work for themselves and supporting one another. Jacqui Singer! Such a lady. I love her. I love Jennie [Reznek.] I claimed Jennie as my mentor. Literally everything in my personal and artistic life, I ask Jennie to ok it. My teachers at UCT; Sara Matchett, Lesoko Seabe who was my supervisor in fourth year during a very difficult period in my life but I managed to submit that honours paper. She has played a huge role in my life. I was also in a theatremaking course with five amazing female theatremakers; Ameera Conrad, Kei-Ella Loewe, Katya Mendelson, Thando Mangcu. People see my work now and appreciate it but that class, those womxn have witnessed my growth better than anyone else because we were in class together, experimented together, failed together, went on different ways in the industry but we still talk.

Nwabisa’s bursary production, The Native Who Caused All The Trouble, will be performed from July 30th until August 5th. For tickets, click here.

All photos were taken by Chris de Beer at Artscape Theatre on May 15th 2017.

Sarafina Magazine and Chris de Beer maintain copyrights over images. For usage or inquiries, please contact us.


5 thoughts on “A Conversation with Nwabisa Plaatjie

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