Amy Jephta and the tender theatre of memory

The winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for theatre brings home the need to keep remembering a past that displaced and dispossessed.

The theatre is a cemetery of silence.

After witnessing Amy Jephta’s All Who Pass, the hushed audience leaves the Rhodes Box Theatre as if departing a sacred space. Some don’t exit. They remain in their seats, stunned or silently sobbing. 

It’s fitting that Jephta’s Twitter handle is @thegravegirl. Ghosts have been exhumed here. The performance is a reckoning of remembrance, a powerful ode to the people of District Six.

Last year, Jephta decided she was tired of making theatre. Then she won one of South Africa’s biggest theatre awards. The acclaimed writer, director and producer from Mitchell’s Plain who works across film, television and theatre explains:

“My plans didn’t include theatre because I had kind of gone, I’m tired of theatre actually. I’m tired of making it. I’m tired of the emotional investment. I’m tired of putting in my everything. And then halfway back home after having made that decision in my head, while in New York, it was like, ‘Oh, you are the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for theatre.’”

Sitting in the Arena Theatre at the Hiddingh campus of the University of Cape Town, where she both studied and lectured, a week before the first performance, Jephta has chosen to answer the call of her craft. “Theatre keeps finding me and keeps pulling me back, which is great,” she says.

1 July 2019: Iman Isaacs, who plays Aziza, in a scene from All Who Pass. Jephta, this year’s winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Theatre, explores displacement in her new play. (Photographs by Ihsaan Haffejee)

A family affair

Winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award (SBYAA) adds Jephta’s name to an impressive list of luminaries, including Sibongile Khumalo, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Gregory Maqoma, Johnny Clegg, William Kentridge and Sam Nhlengethwa. 

But this is not the first time a Jephta has received the prestigious award, which is chosen by a panel of established experts across six categories. Jephta’s younger brother, bass-playing jazz prodigy Benjamin Jephta, received it in 2017. Amy’s win makes them the first siblings to receive the award in different years and for separate work, after twin brothers Hasan and Husain Essop were awarded for their collaborative fine art work in 2014. 

Jephta credits the support of her police officer parents for allowing the talent in her family to flourish. “They had grown up in a situation where the arts was not even an option,” she says. “To my parents’ credit, they discovered very early that they were raising two artists, and they nurtured that as much as they could.”

The making of All Who Pass

Beyond a cash prize and prestige, winning the SBYAA gives artists the financial support and freedom to stage a work of their creative fantasies at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda.

After initially writing a new play for the festival, which also focuses on land issues, Jephta opted to return to All Who Pass, first written at the Royal Court international playwriting residency in 2013. It was a piece she had yet to find a home for – a remarkable irony, as the play deals so intimately with the notion of home.

“The story of District Six was popping up in different ways in South Africa, and it was just a wound that refused to go away,” she says, noting how the displacement extends from Bromwell Street to the Bo-Kaap.

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“It was always brown communities. It was always coloured communities that were being pushed out by whatever it was – by capitalism, by land development, by the City of Cape Town’s blindness. It felt like we were being displaced over and over again.

“This story is as pertinent now as it was in 1978 when All Who Pass plays out … I wanted to tell this story now because it connects the past and the present. It’s our constant narrative. We are always being pushed out of spaces that are ours.

“The dream I have for this play is that it has another life,” Jephta says. “I would want this play to be performed in the District Six Museum.”

1 July 2019: Carmen Maarman plays Nazreen, a single mother with two kids who is evicted from District Six. Amy Jephta’s play is about a 1974 eviction and a 2019 restitution.

A lingering trauma

Joe Schaffers sits at the canteen table in the District Six Museum, after giving a talk to tourists. The educator, 79, who has been working at the museum for 24 years, has an intimate connection to District Six. 

“I experienced the difficulties that people had to go through, so when I’m talking about this, it’s not coming out of books. It’s coming out of personal experience.”

Land restitution remains an unfinished and politically charged issue in District Six, as Shaffers notes: “One hundred and thirty nine families have moved in, officially, and it’s still, of course, a drop in the variable ocean, considering 60 000 people were kicked out.

“I know the psychological trauma that homes are going through,” he says. “It’s a daily battle in those areas.”

Jephta deals with this trauma sensitively in her play, placing humanity in the middle of a politically charged reality.

“It’s about a family at the centre of it all,” Jephta explains. “It’s about how this land act affected a family not only back then but for generations to come.” 

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The narrative connects a family’s last night in their home before it is scheduled to be demolished, and a daughter’s first night back in District Six after restitution. 

Performed on a stage hemmed in by broken objects, Jephta’s words are deftly emotional without becoming overstated. Unadorned, they explore the cruelty of the forced removals by revealing the intimacy of human connections, to home and each other – severed by the state.

When an actor says: “A whole life, and then one morning, nothing left,” the weight of South African history is felt in nine words. 

The piece is brought to life by a cast of talented performers, including stellar turns by Iman Isaacs and Roberto Kyle, and delicately crafted by the direction of Quanita Adams. Jephta’s words work in intimate politics. They remind us that people lived there.

1 July 2019: From left, Jawaahier Petersen, Iman Isaacs, Elton Landrew and Roberto Kyle in a scene from Amy Jephta’s All Who Pass.

The politics of black art

Black creatives do not often have the luxury of apolitical art, either in the creation of the work or in its reception. 

“I grew into my politics, and I took it on,” Jephta explains, “And as much as it’s a weight that I carry, it’s also a mantle that I put on my own shoulders because at some point I was like, ‘You cannot be contextless, as a brown body. You can’t just exist in this weird, ephemeral fluid space.’ The world doesn’t give you the privilege of being neutral. You have to inhabit yourself.”

Weighing her words carefully, she states, “I don’t think of my work as activism. I do think of myself as an activist because I don’t think I have a choice.

“I think as an artist I have a responsibility and an onus to kind of represent, or to give a voice to what I see around me, and by necessity that makes me an activist, and I think of myself as an activist for certain stories and communities. It’s what I’ve been doing sometimes even unconsciously.”

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Jephta is simultaneously working on multiple projects, including the Afrikaans soapie Suidooster and several for her production company PaperJet Films. 

Noting that her work “moves very naturally into a space where it’s making a comment”, Jeptha adds, “I am also a storyteller, so my approach is softer. I don’t feel like I necessarily make hard political theatre. Theatre always allows me to go back to language as a poetry … words can conjure up images and images can conjure up feelings and feelings can shift people emotionally. I always want an audience to be shifted in some way.”

Mourning as memory

Marlene Stephens is still in her seat after the play has ended. “I was four years old when they moved us,” she says, eyes glistening.

“We were one of the last families living in Cato Manor, and I remember the block of flats we were living in. There was no more hot water – my parents had to boil water – and eventually I remember the truck coming to move us to Wentworth because we were not allowed to stay there.

“[The play] made me see my mother in a different light because I finally understood what she must have endured. I can imagine for the first time what it must have been like for her … I can really understand the trauma of what she must have experienced and partly some of the bitterness my mother has. Lost opportunities, lost chances,” her voice trails off. 

On St Marks Street, in an area that has been given a new name, but remains District Six, a plaque outside St Mark’s Church reads: 

“All who pass, remember the thousands of people who lived for generations in District Six, and were forced by law to leave their homes because of the colour of their skins. Remember St Marks Church and the community who resisted the destruction of District Six.”

Jephta’s play both takes its name from and heeds this instruction. 

“The pace of restitution for families who were dispossessed from that land is still alarmingly slow,” Jephta says. “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.”

All Who Pass works in the tender theatre of memory. Stacking words of celebration, sorrow and revolt, Jephta constructs a monument to the past and present, that asks:

What is mourning, if not memory?
An insistence to recall, on constant loop?
A wound, “bright red” and “freshly split”?
A generational trauma?
A lost friendship?
A pristine Cape minstrel costume that will never be worn?
A home demolished on the night before Labarang?
A life left behind, returned to, different?

It is all of the above, at all times, for all who pass – and remember. 

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