In the four decades of entertaining festival-goers, the annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown has transformed itself from being a small Rhodes University Shakespeare Festival to Africa’s largest extravaganza of art, theater, film, music and more.
The festival’s 40-year anniversary was celebrated with some spectacular performances. And there was the powerful Marikana Musical, capturing the events of the Marikana massacre in South Africa in which 34 striking platinum miners were killed by policemen in 2012.
The event has evolved, featuring festivals within the main festival. Since its inception in 1997, the Standard Bank Jazz Festival has been one of the highlights. This year, everybody watched to see if it would live up to its reputation. And it did.
The Jazz Festival director Alan Webster invited Grammy award-winning composer and conductor Maria Schneider, who played to a full house. Some of South Africa’s big names in jazz at the festival were Jimmy Dludlu, Hugh Masekela and Sibongile Khumalo.
The Student Theatre Festival’s line-up promised a strong future for South African theater. A number of the plays were around issues and scenes that directly affect the ‘born frees’ – children born post 1994.
Anthea Garman, Rhodes professor and Think!Fest curator, had thinkers and authors in conversation for the duration of the festival. New books were also launched.
The famous Village Green proved to be a popular haunt during the day, between shows, for hot meals and cold beer. Grahamstown’s oldest landmark, 1820 Settlers Monument, had free performances every evening. A number of projects are being developed to position the town as a year-round ‘creative city’.
Ismail Mohamed, director of the National Arts Festival, summed it up as a success.
“Celebrating artistic excellence was central to the festival’s program. We are bold and courageous to take calculated risks on untested works. We have often been surprised by the gems that we’ve discovered.”
“Often the idea of community theater is associated with black amateurs, and it remains locked in that. When people talk about the mainstream, we often talk about white, musical theater, commercial stuff that plays in Monte Casino [in Johannesburg]…I still see a lot of that in festivals like this. It still feels like there are certain audiences for certain things. There’s very little crossover in those worlds. So, those who are able to be present, we should be taking on that challenge. I am trying to encourage crossover and encourage exploding these outdated notions about theater.”
– Lindiwe Matshikiza, 31-year-old actor and director of children’s play Donkey Child. She has also starred in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom