by Marie Yan
Mülheim, Cologne, 1st of June 2023. It feels like walking a long way in semi-deserted streets – I missed the right stop – before arriving at the courtyard of the Schauspiel Haus Depot: a container-like building sitting on a large concrete slab, once an order-picking warehouse, now a permanent addendum to the historical city theatre. To the left of the entrance, food stands have been set up outside, canteen-style. To the right, tables are covered with white cloth for prospective flutes. People congregate in a friendly buzz; some having probably met or reunited in the two days that the European Conference for African Studies has already been going on at the university of Cologne. We are all gathering for the kickoff of the African Futures Cologne 2023 programme, of which the arts festival Africologne is a part of.
I am relating these details to diffuse the shapeless tension I have come with to the evening.
The opening performance is the cause of that discomfort and let’s admit it, fatigue. Something repeats. Something repeats in the re-inviting of white artists capitalising on non-white stories or performers and being denounced for it, at a time where plenty of talented people with skin in the game create and are not given the biggest theatres and the opening nights. Controversy is a selling fairy godmother if you say loud enough that your piece means the opposite of what you are being attacked for. I will not write the name of the artist. It is in the programme.
As I make my way to my seat I have in my ear a recent article by Teju Cole grappling with the beauty and the existence of Vermeer’s paintings: «Any work of art is evidence of the material circumstances in which it was produced.» What does it then signal, to choose to ignore that a white artist working in the post-apartheid context of South Africa, necessarily walks on one side of Du Bois colour line? That opening with his work, is to say that these inherited conditions do not matter, as long as the art satisfies? What exactly is being celebrated? And finally, I wonder: what does it mean to open? And what exactly is being opened?
Earlier, I listened with awe to the keynote given by writer Yvonne Adhiambi Owuor, who proclaimed: «[…] What a time it is. Of existential and dramatic battles. And for worldview and mythologies. What a mess. What an opportunity. This season of flux is marked by the reluctant retreat of old powers from our world.Uncertainty, disintegration, as established systems and structures give way, for they can no longer shelter or hold our humanity in its complex realities, in its emerging possibilities. […] This is a season for new metaphors and archetypes.»
This last sentence I keep close to me. Opening, as in, a new season of the imagination.
The piece has started already, ritual gestures are performed on stage – the washing of hands and feet of Samson… – that I know to be replicated from an actual initiation ritual, after I interviewed Elvis Sibeko, who danced in and choregraphed Samson, who told me: «We must collaborate. Even with our colonisers because they are part of this future, we will never escape it.» Who told me how he borrowed for the piece «jumps from the Massai people, street language, that anger that we have, that we have been colonised, that sharpness of ducking the bullets, that sharpness of what we went through, then the sacred language of the sangoma.» Who told me of his initiation as a divine healer – an experience that the director was extremely interested in – that this creative process allowed for him to tap into what was most personal and sacred to him: «Samson is born with the gift and the gift was given by the gods, me, I was born with a gift : one-one. I have the power to change the story, to break the poverty cycle in my family. [For my initiation] I needed to go to the water to the mountain… it’s what Samson went through.» And the ongoing debate in the South African arts scene about the showing of once hidden rituals, which, for him, is the possibility to educate while going to the root of what defines the sacred: «Is it real, is it sacred? For me, time and space are making a moment sacred. The theatre piece has the «elements» of being sacred. It’s an invitation. Everything that you watch, it’s been taken from the real, sacred specific ritual. We are dramatising what the script is saying.»
Samson unleashes his fury on his enemies. I think again: the choice of staging anger reminds me of another recent show I saw in France called LWA. The opening of the show, immediately after a prologue, is a long monologue inspired by the figure of François Mackandal, maroon slave, leader of several rebellions in former French Saint Domingo colony, today’s Haiti. In an otherwise impressive interpretation by the actor Jackee Toto, the staging, like Samson, relished in playing up the violence perpetrated by a Black man, presenting the actor his back on the audience, faceless, depicting the gruesome murder of plantation owners as he is deposited with the warring iwa/spirit Ogun.
Seeing a repetition I question the desire. Why this desire to show, even through myth, even through the guise of representing a justified fury, Black men murdering and seeking revenge? Showing Black men’s anger is an archetypal trope that ignores the real impact that the projection of anger onto Black male bodies has until today and how it damages their possibility of life. No way seems to open here for a new season of the imagination.
I watch the show without being able to see anything else than a cycle. Accompanied by a beautiful musical score by composer Shane Cooper and served by an ensemble work of great performers, which I regret not uplifting as I would wish to, in a project that seems so skewed from the beginning.
Opening, tonight, for me, in lieu of celebration and welcoming of the new, was to re-open something of a wound, something already seen, something I hope the following days of the festival will come to mend, for the words of Yvonne Adhiambi Owuor to prevail.
 Referring here to the history of the Exhibit B performance. An excellent article about how antiracist criticisms were unjustly dismissed: Exhibiting Racism. Exhibit B and the oppositional public, Maxime Cervulle, Études de communication, 48|2017, 37-54.
 «Seeing beyond the beauty of a Vermeer», Teju Cole, New York Times Magazine, 25th May 2023.
 «COVID-19: Violent Policing of Black Men During Lockdown Regulations in South Africa», Malose Langa and Bandile Bertrand Leopeng,Social and Health Sciences, Volume 18, Issue 2, Dec 2020, University of South Africa.