Synchronicity and Frustration

Riddled by self-doubt, I applied for AIDS theatre funding. In my proposal, all performances would be in Sesotho, and all the money would go to Basotho people and institutions. I was being paid by the Fulbright, so I donated my services as director. I asked for no vehicle, sets, costumes, lights, or sound equipment because the simpler the production, the less can go wrong, be misappropriated, or break down. My proposal for $50,000 won, and I put the Health Ministry in charge of the money. I was the artistic director; they were management. I had no idea how I would make the thing happen.

Days after the grant was approved, I found Ausi Halio sitting on a tabletop in the US Cultural Center, swinging a fashionably-booted foot, an orange mohair scarf tossed dramatically over her shoulder, looking like a page out of Vogue magazine. Synchronicity? Coincidence? Magic? 

A group called Basotho Women in the Media invited me to lead a writing workshop for them, and there she was: a vivacious, energetic Mosotho whose laughter was music, who worked for the Health Ministry, understood AIDS, and had studied with the famous playwright Zakes Mda as a college student. She was about to create the perfect scenario on which Basotho actors could improvise their lines: bold, bawdy, with shocking plot revelations and a tragic ending (in Sesotho, with an English version for me).

Halio and I held auditions at the university in Roma, and in the capitol city, Maseru, an hour away. We chose a cast of sixteen. Half were working-class people from the Burial Society Theatre Group in Roma, and half were college graduates with experience in theatre, then working for the government or for non-governmental organizations in Maseru. While Halio wrote the scenario with our chosen cast in mind, I started ensemble-building with the performers. We warmed up by singing and dancing together. All the actors were accustomed to singing in eight-part harmony, and all shared a vocabulary of shoulder shimmy, rhythmic stepping, line-dancing, and what we now call twerking. The warm-ups were pure joy. However mirror exercises were out of the question because eye-contact was taboo between people of different status and age. And like the course of true love, our process never did run smooth.

I included a job for M’e Mpho as my translator/interpreter, and when the project teetered on the edge of collapse, she saved it with her good sense, wisdom, and forgiving spirit. I waited with M’e Mpho in partially-empty rehearsal rooms for the following three months, nattering and agonizing, spinning emotional cartwheels. It was the best of times. The worst of times. All cast members had full-time day jobs. In Roma there were sick children, a mother on her deathbed, a wife in hospital, a cousin getting married, an errant pig…. 

Hao, M’e Makie,” M’e Mpho intoned with sympathy, “you make people work too hard. They have lives! They will leave if you push them. Let them go home.”

Halio would phone my office with reassurances: “The people are going to love this! You’ll see. We’re telling them exactly what they need to know…. No, no worry, it will come together. When the actors are facing an audience, they’ll know what to do.”

This is impossible, I thought, fuming. The guy who plays the miner coming home from South Africa doesn’t even know which actress he’s supposed to be married to, and which one he’s seducing. He’s never even seen either of them!

The Maseru cast had difficulty with transport, and they also had day-jobs. One week the minibus taxi carrying three cast members hit a cow. The cow was fatally injured but took hours to die. The cowherd threatened to kill the taxi driver, while the taxi driver blamed the cowherd for the wreck of his vehicle. Two men had lost their livelihoods, and the passengers were stranded in the dark, mediating between two whose lives had just taken a terrible turn, unable to end the cow’s agony. They missed the warm-ups and stopped the rehearsal with their story. I listened as patiently as I could and then tried to get the group back to work, but a pall had fallen over the room. M’e Mpho took me aside and explained, “No one can work tonight. Let them talk to each other and then send them home.”

On days when a few actors showed up in one place or another, we created individual scenes. The actors were wildly creative, they took to broad gestures with ease, and though I couldn’t understand most of what they said, I had the scenario as a guide. Scene by scene, it looked terrific. Yet I was convinced we had to have a full run-through of the play with the whole cast. In desperation I decided to take the Roma actors to Maseru in a university minibus. The university would not let me drive a vehicle, so I had to reserve both a vehicle and a driver. That led me to the office of  the Head of Transport, a rather pompous fellow with an English-language sign, framed and hanging behind his desk, that read: “Wife-beating Is an Art.”

Him: (Dismissing me with a tone of finality) It is too late now to request transport next weekend.

Me: But I only got the paperwork from the Dean today. Please, we really need this. It is to help your people. 

Him: Our drivers are working very hard. They need time off.

Me: I understand. But—

Him: We have many requests, you see. (Showing me the big book.)

Me: (Looking at the book, where the date I’m requesting is blank.) See? Nothing on that date! I only need a driver in the evening, so the driver will have all day to rest. I don’t need a driver till night-time.

Him: But it is a Saturday.

Me: Yes?

Him: (Glaring with great disdain at the idiot foreign woman) Beer-drinking is part of our culture. You cannot expect us to find a driver who is sober on a Saturday night. (Slams the book shut.)

Me: Stunned and sputtering silence. 

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