Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns

Atlantic crossing Journals.

July13

PART 1

 

Greetings from a land where the sea water is the colour of an overpriced Caribbean cocktail, the locals all talk like Bob Marley and the humidity has the ability to test the resolve of the most tenacious of Durbanites.

As I write, a tropical squall is pelting the boat and at long last the heat has been momentarily quelled.  It’s during such tempests that one has to ensure that they have “battened down the hatches!”

You see I’m learning tons out here, most of all how to yell melodramatic sea-fearing phrases—which I thought only existed in Pirate movies–with a straight face!  I’m currently honing my ‘Land ahoy!” and “All hands on deck.”

 

I write from Nanny Cay, a port set amidst steamy Virgin Island jungles and rolling Caribbean hills. We’ve been here for the past two days polishing the boat and provisioning for the big trip ahead. This will be our last taste of land and civilization before heading off later today on the open sea.

 

It’s surreal to trace our journey on a map of the world, finger sliding across that vast tract of blue that exists between the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Sea. I can only describe the anticipation as part delight and part terror.

 

I must admit, that upon arrival I felt a bit like James Bond stepping off a chartered flight from Puerto Rico and following our captain a few meters from the airport exit to a rickety jetty where we bundled into a dinghy that whisked us over the waves and into salty night. A good twenty minutes later and we set our sights on new home….. Sailboat SLIM but i’ll get to her in a moment.

 

Our crew consists of Dyl, whom you are well acquainted with, his brother Travis, a born leader and athlete and the Captain of the boat.  Travis’s wife Ana, the first mate: a feisty, hilarious Argentinian who also happens to be an accomplished Vegan chef.  I should add that we are setting sail with enough vegetable matter on board to survive for months, in fact should we be shipwrecked, I might well be able cling for dear life to an over-sized plantain to stay alive.

 

Dave Denton is the other crew member and is in possession of the sort of matinee idol looks that would make your mom go weak at the knees.  Dave is a warm and seasoned sailor, his eyes constantly fixed on some distant horizon.

 

Lola is the boat dog, who looks remarkably similar to Snowy from Tin-Tin. The only difference is that Lola, over her short time on the planet, has more cross continental adventures stamped into her passport (she really does have a passport) then Snowy might dream of ever boasting.

 

Lola follows in the fated paw prints of Anna and Travis’s previous intrepid pooch named Pickles, who after many wondrous journeys’ upon the high seas, was tragically devoured by a Komodo dragon in Java. Honestly the Hardy Boys couldn’t have dreamt these sorts of things up!

 

So I’ve been trying to get acquire my sea legs. Having been anchored out at sea for the past week, I have grown accustomed to the horizon line resembling a spirit level that refuses to settle. It seems the constant swaying motion of the boat is quickly absorbed into one’s muscle memory.

 

The other day we visited Road Town, a stoner Caribbean village where shop owners still haven’t gotten round to taking down their Seasons Greetings Christmas decorations from earlier in the year.

 

It was the longest I’d been on land for some time. I wondered the town’s grocery stores woozy, embarrassing fellow crew members -and perturbing shoppers– by veering left and right into product displays, attempting to get my footing and generally looking like a first year Varsity bro at his inaugural drinking initiation.

 

Now to SLIM. She really is one of a kind. A gorgeous svelte 66 foot gunboat as sleek and pristine as the latest Apple Mac product. Hell, even the waves appear to be hurling themselves in lovesick- adoration at her indifferent sides. And when the attention gets too much—which it often does– she simply concertinas open her mighty sail, which rises like a Chinese fan to conceal her blush from randy sailors and red faced gentleman callers, whom cat call to her from passing decks. There are many mornings, when docked in a cay, that one crawls out of bed bleary eyed and into the kitchen area only to find a paparazzi of fans and camera’s surrounding the boat.

 

SLIM, it must be said, while sexy as sin, is minimal and modest in comparison to some of the other floating condo’s out here. Some have constantly changing LED lighting glowing across their decks causing them to resemble a Las Vegas strip club or what I’ve subsequently dubbed as UFO’s (Unidentified Floating Objects). 

 

The other evening, I watched the worst of the First-World play out aboard one of these luminous eye-sores. House music pumping as a young ‘Trustafarian’ popped a bottle of champagne and doused a kneeling and squealing bikini-clad beauty in its contents. The bottle then slipped out of grip, cracked the deck of the boat and tumbled into the sea amidst shrieks of laughter.

                                                                               

But I digress, the purpose of our crossing is to deliver SLIM to The Spanish Island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean.

 

I consider myself extremely blessed to be on board. I’m aware that seeing the world in this way is an extraordinary privilege. That to cross entire oceans is an opportunity that does not visit one very often. I’m trying my best to pay full attention. To soak it all up like a veritable sea sponge.

It’s not that my novice status, and occasional delusions of grandeur, go unchallenged. Upon arrival in the B.V.I our bags were delayed in Puerto Rico for two days, so we lived on the boat dressed in the official SLIM crew uniform of baggies and T-shirt branded with the logo.

 

I felt pretty hardcore dressed in ‘slim’ fitting white T and steel grey swimming baggies.  The sailing fraternity in these parts shows an obvious reverence for SLIM when she anchors beside them and these uniforms’ instantly associate one with to the coolest gun-boat this side of the Caribbean. 

 

One evening we stepped into a fancy Cay side restaurant for a crew meal, wearing the gear and were treated like celebrities. Heads turned as we passed, people whispering behind menus. A young guy trying to impress a gaggle of blondes summoned me over to his table.

 

“You guys with Slim?”

 

“Ya….ya that’s us” 

 

I reply nonchalantly, hoping that’s where he’ll leave the conversation but he persists, launching into an epic appraisal of her beauty followed by an equally epic list of questions. I attempt to field them with casual shrugs, playing it cool till the questioning gets technical and I’m forced to contemplate inventing things about boat engines, sailing knots and the like.

 

Eventually I fall silent. My rock n’ roll status rubbished when I admit to just tagging along for the ride, cleaning toilets and not knowing how to correctly tie my own shoe lace let alone a sailing knot of any repute.

 

Dyl and I were lying on the trampoline net of the boat the other night. Stars scattered across the night sky above, Caribbean breeze cooling sunburnt skin, the gentle motion of the boat lulling us to sleep. We’d spent a majority of the day snorkeling, pursuing psychedelic parrot fish through a network of underwater canyons and caves and then later that afternoon, a trail run around a privately owned island that rises up from the sea to offer some picturesque views of the B.V.I archipelagos.

 

From this vantage point, one sets eyes on a series of mythical islands: Deadman’s Bay, named after a bunch of rum-soaked pirates who were marooned on a neighboring island and drowned whilst trying to swim across to the opposite shore.


Another of these islands is said to have been the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island.  It’s not often one gets to say they sailed past Treasure Island!

 

One of my greatest pleasures in traveling is when fiction and reality intersect in this fashion. When one is afforded the chance to make real, with one’s own eyes and senses, an island that has ostensibly been inhabited and populated by the minds and imaginations of millions of children around the world.

 

The weather man predicts smooth sailing. Better unbatten the hatches then. I have always been happiest when near the ocean and I suppose such a prolonged and intimate engagement, should see me at my most serene and contemplative……….. or green and seasick. whatever happens I’m looking forward to having all that room to think and hurl. 

 

PART 2

B.V.I to AZORES

 

Greetings from a windswept volcanic mass somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic, where the men look like potatoes with facial hair, antique church bells toll on the hour and the sloshing phonetic sounds of Portuguese fill the air.

 

We touched down in the Azores a few days ago, after 12 wondrous, awe-inspiring days at sea. It was a journey that saw us cross 2300 nautical miles from the torpid climes of the British Virgin Islands to the chillier ones of the Azores.

 

We set sail now on the second leg of the journey which will see us move though the Gibraltar Straits to the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean. That’s four oceans in the space of month, if you include the farewell skinny-dip I took in the Durban Indian Ocean before I left.

 

At sea, time evaporates, one drifts in and out of days not quite knowing how the last one ended and when the next began. There are no landmarks to assist and the only form of routine revolves around meal and watch-times. Geographically, transitions are marked by the fluctuating states of the sea, subtle shifts in light and the slow choreography of cloud formations.

 

It’s as if one is ploughing steadily through a vast and mercurial desert. By the fourth day, you get a thrill from any new visual stimuli. These manifest in the form of flying fish suspended above the water like a silver hummingbird, a Portuguese man of war (monstrous jelly fish not a hairy hostile sailor in case you wondering) or an albatross fishing in the boats wake.

 

By far the most exhilarating is that of a pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins. One can almost hear ‘The flight of the Valkyries” orchestrating their arrival. The person on watch cries “Dolphins” and the crew drop what they are doing and scramble to the deck, Lola the boat pooch yapping as up to thirty or so of these torpedo into view and like fighter-planes celebrating a recent victory, dart and weave through one another with breath-taking precision. After a few death defying leaps, they form a uniform V at the bow before vanishing from whence they came.  These aquatic acrobats understand that to make a lasting impression, one must leave their audience wanting. No matter how much applause is granted, they must retain an air of mystery by resisting an encore.

 

Sighting another boat or airplane is less thrilling. Such glimpses arouse conflicting emotions. The sign of other human beings can be encouraging in the sense that such sights have the ability to salvage one from vanishing entirely up their own existential arsehole or you can feel put-out at having come so far into the middle of nowhere only to bump into signs of fellow homo sapiens.

 

 “Come on” you yell, “It’s a big Godamn sea. Leave me to my own sweet blue oblivion.”

 

I suppose in some ways been on a boat is not unlike travelling by aeroplane, the only difference is that a flight seldom takes 12 days (unless you got to wrong end of a SAA off-season special to Uzbekistan), and a metallic capsule used in commercial flight tends to seal one off entirely from the element they are traversing. A plane is designed to make one forget that they are dangling several hundred kilometers in the air while a boat cannot help but remind you of the elements you are now at the mercy of and what a crazy ass thing you are doing.

 

The first night or two, I must admit to wondering what I had gotten myself into.  The seas were rough and the boat crashing through the surf caused the vessel to become an orchestra of ominous creeks and groans. Anyone who has flown with me in the past will know how the slightest fart of aeroplane turbulence sends me crawling back to a God I renounced eons ago.

 

Let’s be honest boats and floating objects built to transport humans don’t have the best of reputations in newspaper headlines or popular films. Think White SquallMoby DickTitanic, Hitchcock’s Life Boat, Poseidon, The Perfect Storm. The recent harrowing Robert Redford one, when you could see he was just wishing the whole time he had stayed put with Meryl on that farm in Aaaaaaafrica.

 

In the above mentioned narratives no one ever boards their vessel of choice and makes it to their tropical destination it time for a Pina Colada and the sunset. Boat movies generally degenerate into protagonists eating each other on a rapidly deflating lilo while fending off sharks with a frying pan. Admittedly I’ve watched way too many of these in my time and so have the worst possible frame of reference to accurately (as opposed to imaginatively) interpret sounds and motions as either life-affirming or threatening.

 

I considered popping a tranquilizer to take the edge of things for the first night or two but was terrified that should an emergency occur I would be too goofed and ‘Inshallah baby” to leave the vessel (Muster) with the required speed.

 

Over the first night or two the boat motion was so frenzied that it felt as if I was locked in a cabin haunted by some petulant poltergeist. Just as would fall asleep, I would be flung across the room like Linda Blair in The Exorcist.

 

 I’ve had much time to lie in bed and learn the different sleep states and sensations and so far these are the predominant three.

 

1.)The maternal calm seas: here one feel like a babe cradled in their mother’s arms….. in this state one is lulled into the most sublime of dreaming states.

 

2.) The belly of a whale: An experience akin to lying in the groaning stomach of a ginormous sea beast who happens to be experiencing severe digestive problems. A torpedo sized Rennies is in order.

 

3.) The Exorcist:   Hellish demon possession which I have already described above.

 

One prays for state 1 but quickly learns how to adjust to more common 2 and 3.

 

On the boat, every crew member has to participate in a 2 hour watch which runs and alternates for the full 24 hours. Over this period one is expected to scan the horizon and ensure the boat is not going to collide with another vessel or object. The maximum speed we are reaching is 21 knots which means unexpected obstacles can creep up within a short period.

 

At the moment, running into (and over) whales have been one of the biggest and most legitimate concerns as the passage to and from the Azores is teeming with breeding pods at his this time of year.  A head-on collision with a creature the size of a several school busses or a tanker for that matter is not ideal and so no matter how ADHD I am, I’ve had to learn how to rein my fluctuating attention span in and concentrate on the little bleeping radar (more submarine movie fantasies playing out here).

 

There are horror stories of people, during their night watch, falling off overboard while taking a pee off the back of the vessel.  It’s a terrifying thought, vanishing into that expanse long before fellow crew member’s cotton on to the fact that you’re missing in action. This plays on my mind plenty and I’ve never dared to attempt it ….as much as I love a pee under the open skies, drifting like Sandra B in Gravity off into a turbulent vaccum made has made me settle somewhat religiously for the sterile safety of the boat cubicle.

 

The immensity of the ocean, hit home again when we slowed the boat down and jumped off the back for a swim.  Here we took an empty beer bottle, filled it with water, slipped on a pair of goggles and watched it sink. The feeling could only be described as… awe. The bottle steadily sinking for what felt like a good ten minutes before vanishing from view. Travis, the captain, reckons it would have only touched the ground a few hours after us having let it go.

 

As serious as these ‘Watches’ are, they are also a beautiful opportunity to grapple with what it means to be utterly alone, lost and drifting out across this pale dot of ours.  Like that beer bottle one learns to simply surrender and sink deeper into the mysteries of the big blue beyond.

 

At night when everyone is sleeping and the ocean roars all around, when the constellations are splashed across the night sky, and the boats churns up phosphorescence as it sails onwards. In these moments it really feels like we are satelliting in a little space ship, ploughing through the cosmos, and leaving a trail of luminous stars in our wake.  

 

 

PART 3

AZORES TO MALLORCA

 

It’s been nearly a month since Dyl and I left SLIM in Mallorca, which will be her new home over the next season.

 

In the end we spent 21 days at sea and crossed 4200 nautical miles. To say one’s life is profoundly enriched by such a journey would be an understatement. The final part of our crossing was colored by extraordinary sights such as SLIM’S Spinnaker sail unfurling like a giant butterfly wing from out of its chrysalis sheath. I will never forget the moment we set eyes on the Gibraltar straites — that mythical point where two continents brush shoulders– and growing teary at the sight of the Africa…. my home yet so very far from the southern tip of it.

 

And on our final afternoon at sea, chasing a transcendent sunset, our Dolphin cheerleaders appearing to pay their final playful respects.

 

Spending time out at sea, one’s senses, particularly smell, are sharpened and I’ll never forget the pungent whiff of cigarette smoke and designer fragrances that accosted my nostrils as we set sights on the ancient port city of Palma in Mallorca.

 

Dylan and I re-watched Japanese animator Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Howls Moving Castle while aboard the boat and the whimsical concept employed in the film has I many ways come to characterize our own journey aboard SLIM.

 

In the film, a group of characters’ travel in a mobile castle through a variety of alternate realities. In the entrance hall of the eponymous castle, there is a magical dial. Howl simply turns the dial and is able to step out the front-door of his home into a magical universe of his choosing.

 

In many ways SLIM felt like this itinerant (in our case ‘buoyant’) castle. Our bedroom and the interior of the boat was the only constant.  Every time we stepped onto land, it was to find ourselves somewhere new and breathtaking: a continent or island utterly transformed and unrecognizable from the last.

 

Such magic is only possible through the devotion of Captain Travis and Ana who run a tight and immaculate ship. To watch these sailors’ manage this glorious gun-boat with the love, professionalism and devotion they do, is a humbling thing.

 

SLIM, as with all man-made modes of transportation, has her demands, her temperaments and occasional malfunctions and there really is nothing that Trav and Ana can’t fix or tend to in an instant….even while out at sea, several hundred kilometers away from the nearest sign of civilization not to mention spare parts.

 

It’s been a month back on land and I find SLIM’S rhythms and rituals still linger within me.  At night I often wake to think I can still feel the rocking motion of the boat or hear the rippling her sail, the persistent swooshing sound of the sea outside.

 

I miss the SLIM family, the many routines one establishes on a boat over a month together at sea, the sight of Lola poking her fluffy head through our cabin window each morning to call us to breakfast.

 

I’ll forever yearn for those deep and vivid sea dreams infused, as they were, with stars and phosphorescence.

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Interview with South African Theatre magazine.

July12

1.) What is your earliest memory of theatre?

I was five  or six years old when my parents took me to see the musical Singing in The Rain at the Durban PlayhouseI insisted they take me back several times after that just to see if it would rain on cue in the same place. Sure enough the onstage deluge occurred night after night  and after that I was convinced they stage manager had a hot -line to God.

2.) Which is your favorite theatre to perform in and why?

I’ve always been a huge fan of Market Theatre, but sadly think the institution has lost some of its vision and enthusiasm of late which makes it increasingly difficult to collaborate or propose new ideas there. The theatres within the Market have passionate staff running them and are versatile spaces. I’ve always found the JHB audiences that frequent The Market to be diverse, critical and engaged. My work always grows substantially from these sorts of audiences and the feedback and thought they bring to the party.

The Rhodes theatre in Grahamstown has also been a great space to work in over the years whenever I have work premiering at National Art’s festival, it’s generally the only space that cope with the technical demands of my work and I love how it’s both intimate and epic at the same time.

3.) How would you describe your journey as an artist in the entertainment world?

I feel incredibly blessed by the opportunities I have been granted over the years. It’s also tough and a constant struggle to fund new work, to find sufficient time and resources to write new work, to try convince theatre companies to invest in the work, to coax audiences to come watch the work etc.  Make no mistake, I’m a hustler like everyone else in this industry. I’d say my professional life is made up of 40% doing what I love(making theatre) and the other 60% taking on a variety jobs to fund the more risky passion project’s I tend to get involved in. It’s a constant juggle. One has to remain incredibly versatile and optimistic at the same time. There’s this misconception that it gets easier with the more success you have but in my experience the challenges remain the same as when I was starting out. If anything funding pools have grown smaller and artistic directors, more conservative in their curatorship.

4.) What is your favorite Theatre production of all time and why?

One that comes to mind instantly is Theatre Complicite’s piece screened at Cinema Nouveau (sadly I never got to see it live on stage) several years back called The Disappearing Number. At the time, I was creating Abnormal Loads and trying to look at theatre in more cinematic terms and this piece reminded me how limitless the possibilities are in bringing a story visually to life on the stage.

I was fortunate enough to attend my first National Arts theatre festival in the 90’s and was exposed to many wonderful South African story-tellers and works over this period. I’ve seen so many brilliant plays over the last twenty years that I would hate to list one over the other because they have all meant something to me at different times or periods in my life.

5.)  We’re going to put you on the spot; who is your favorite actor/actress that you have ever worked with and why?

I could go on for hours with this list but some of the most memorable experiences I have had making theatre are with the likes of Mpume Mthombeni, Khutjo Bakunzi- Green, Ntando Cele, Sandra Prinsloo, Janna Ramos-Violante, Menzi Mkwhane, Jenna Dunster and the actors from the Big Brotherhood Community Theatre Group.

Why? Because they are all committed, brilliant professionals and compassionate, idiosyncratic beings who enrich my life and work immeasurably.

6.) What achievement of yourself are you most proud of?

Seeing the recent sold-out houses around the country for our local adaptation George Orwell’s Animal Farm has been hugely affirming. It reminded me that contemporary political/protest theatre still has a vital function (not to mention a committed and hungry audience) here in SA. 

I suppose I’m proud (and grateful) of the fact that I’m still here, somehow finding the way and means to tell stories that mean something to me and the audiences that come to the work.

7.) What advice do you have to give to aspiring directors?

The below list is really just an accumulation of “notes to self” I have made over the years. In no particular order they are…

1.) Broaden your area of interests and influences. Watch as much theatre and cinema as possible, read literature, study history, politics, photography, architecture, painting and psychology.

2.)The pictures you put on stage are as important as the words you put in your character’s mouths.

3.) Sermons are best left to pastors. Respect your audience, don’t patronize them.

4)Experience and immerse yourself in worlds outside of your own. Travel, explore, interrogate and learn from how others shape and tell their stories.

5.)Know the difference between homage, inspiration, plagiarism and appropriation.

6.)We live in the age of collaboration, leave your ego at home. Only work alongside those who push, challenge, teach and inspire you. Call on, and trust in their skills….you don’t always know best.

7.) Good directing begins with the casting. Casting I’d say is 80 % of the hard work done.

8.)Don’t rush to make a new work just because you feel you have a good idea, let the idea grow over time. Keep note books, folders and nourish them daily. Stories only get richer with age.

9.) The first technical rehearsals on stage will always make you doubt the work you’ve made, see it with fresh eyes and enthusiasm in the morning.  

10.)Subvert stereotypes, strive to create empathetic theatrical experiences, set out to shift audience perceptions and challenge assumptions.

11.)Deplore mediocrity.

12.)  Seek TRUTH in every word and gesture. Reality television is a showground for the insincere, forced and sentimental, not the stage.

13)  If there is something you feel you are better at or would rather be doing ….do that instead.

8.) What has been the biggest challenge for you to overcome as a South African artist?

As I mentioned earlier this is a somewhat Kamikaze profession to be in. We do it because we love it and because we really couldn’t imagine ourselves doing anything else with our time and talents. Everything about writing/ directing/producing a play is challenging, taxing and certainly character-building.

I’ll never forget a pearl of wisdom the great Pieter Dirk Uys imparted to me during an Abnormal Loads Dress rehearsal. He saw I was buckling under the strain of it all and walked over, patted me on the back and said: “Just remember Neil, it’s theatre not chemotherapy!”. I always cling to those words during my darkest Dress Rehearsal hours.

9.) What does theatre mean to you?

Theatre means many things to me. It’s a shamanic art. In its purest form, theatre can offer a transcendent space for both performers and audiences to connect and build something within. Storytelling has enormous power, dangerous power even. Just look at how many fantastical myths and ideological fairy-tales the human-race has called upon to perpetuate terrible injustices against one another. For me theatre offers us the opportunity to create new stories: counter-narratives and mythologies for us to learn from- preferably less nihilistic and more tolerant ones.

Of course we must comment and reflect on the terrible injustices within our societies, but at the same time we must also endeavor to present alternatives, by this I mean collectively imagining and depicting how the world could and should be around us.

On a less cosmic scale, you could say that theatre encourages an audience to see a problem or culture or conflict in a far more empathetic light. I am a believer in the transformative power of empathy as a starting point for the conversations we need to be having here in South Africa. Theatre offers a platform for a diverse group of people to come together and share in something outside of themselves. Once we’ve removed our blinkers and armor’s, opened our ears and imaginations, we are for more receptive to imagining and actualizing new way’s forward together. We all need to work harder to tap into this sort of incredible potential the medium offers us.

This may all sound overly idealistic but with our most recent theatre project ULWEMBU (focusing on street level drug addiction in Durban) we were able to see some very exciting results emerging in the way the play was able to shift perceptions, policing and even policy-making in the city of Durban. This is the sort of story-telling that excites me and the sort of theatre-making I intend to hone and focus well into the future. 

-end-

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The pleasures of falling and flight.

September20

For Vaughn on his 27th Birthday

You gave me a palace in clouds, a JHB skyline dressed in mist and moonlight, dust-storms and thunder showers. You hung me in a room seventeen stories above the agitated hum of the city, taxis congesting the arteries of the streets below. A metropolis hemorrhaging with hooting.

Those afternoons wrapped in sheets and each-other finding a strange peace in the noises of other people’s lives being lived furiously down below, a navigated chaos which from up here seemed worlds away. Calming to hear it and more so for not having to participate in it. Us the fortunate ones, the ones who could observe when we liked… looking down for perspective and up for respite.

We could look down to see the dance of pedestrians and their shadows. A favourite past time of mine, when in the late afternoon light ants became giants with disproportionate limbs straining under the weight of grocery bags. Down to watch men, in the dead of night, pulling towers of refuse: snails with scrap-heaps for backs. Down across the patchwork quilt of street traders, the rubiks cubes of vegetable sellers tables’: red squares of tomatoes, green of kale and yellow of banana.

If you were a building you might resemble this one, towering and unpretentious, magnificent and old world yet re-purposed (and all the more idiosyncratic for it) to suit the needs and requirements of a contemporary African city. I cannot separate you nor my thoughts of you from this flat and what you taught me here. The magic of the space, the kitchen jars with assortments of berries and nuts and teas. The clanking rusted pipes that sung sad subterranean songs whenever I submerged my ears in the bath. The cacophony of the building, orchestrations of decay which punctuated our every routine, whether it was a death defying lift-ride to the ground floor or malfunctioning fire-alarms that kept us up until the early hours. I cannot think of you and not connect these thoughts to the poetry of the space.

Those poor ornamental ducks lodged on your bedroom wall, pinned in perpetual migration, observing daily the flight of ibises into another apocalyptic highveld sunset and wishing with all their might that their wings worked the same. The chipped, frayed, rusted corners of things. A summer storm tossing us out to sea, making an Art-Deco galleon of this high rise. The winds that wreaked havoc on our laundry and deposited our underpants in yards in Soweto. Winds that howled with the collective laments of old white lady ghosts who many eons ago used to take high-tea in the same building and shop at the Anstey’s department store for fur trimmed coats and pheasant feathered hats. The wide-eyed toddlers who gazed up at us in the lift with a mixture of curiosity and terror.

You made me stop running in the city at night. I used to dash from the parking lot to the lobby door. You helped undo the conditioning of a suburban upbringing and a paranoia that only the privileged are privileged enough to indulge in. You did this till I was more at home here than anywhere else in the world and realised I would never feel more engaged and alive and connected to this county and its people as I did when arriving at the corner of Jeppe and Joubert.

So the other evening when I felt angry at having to sit in a sterile Rosebank food-court it was only because all I felt like doing was soaking in a candle-lit bath with you, watching your forehead crumple in deep contemplation, lying as we so often did in an awkward tangle of limbs, the cold steel of the tap pushing into your neck, lying here until our hands wrinkled, the water cooled and the candle flickered out.

I ached for that balcony at the end of the world, a platform that allowed me to imagine and speculate (in equal parts) the pleasures of falling and flight. I felt sad at only having a concrete cast of your hands when not long ago ones of flesh used to omfort the palm of my back.

There are many things I miss and will continue to, even more that I will come to understand and celebrate. These are just some but certainly not all

Farewell Mrs MacBean

February9

I woke to a blizzard over New York City and the news that my high-school teacher and dear friend Jean McBean had passed.

Sitting now twenty-six stories up, I watch the snowflakes spin and circle in great mists over Manhattan. A collision of memories, emotions, and lessons seem to echo the dance.

I recall now how Jeanie clocked me my first week of high school (alongside English teacher Geoff Mace) and quite magically created an environment for me– and countless other creative minded kids– where it was possible to forge and foster a creative-self. This in a school where rugby and more singular machismo-minded activities prevailed.

From the age of 14 Jean treated us like equals, adults and friends. She created the most fecund base for us to grow: a soil nourished as it was by love, knowledge and this unfaltering belief she had in our respective abilities and interests.
I am thinking now of the word legacy. What Jean has left behind, what of her will live on through the hundreds (if not thousands) of students she engaged and connected with over her lifetime as mentor and friend.

I’m thinking now what this word really means and how although Jeanie is now no longer with us, hundreds of reflective shards of her glimmer in past students scattered across the globe, hundreds of snowflakes each on their own delirious flight pattern, hundreds of seeds that were nurtured at that impressionable age and that have gone on to prosper now into fully fledged trees.

When my play Abnormal Loads was published a few years ago, I could think of no better person to dedicate the creative labour to.Such an opus would not have been possible without the love of history, literature and film she had given me.

She taught me History for five years in a row, she understood that the only way to make the subject live was by wrenching it out of the past, casting off the mothballs and setting it on fire in the present day imaginations of learners.

She was a winsome, melancholic and deeply thoughtful being (Bean) who often reminded us–through irrefutable Historic evidence– how full of bullshit the world was and is. She taught us that if we were ever to try fix it, we would need to constantly empathise, interrogate and question.

She taught us that creative outputs/responses were often the best (perhaps the only) means to achieve this. She taught us that such reflections could help us transcend the bullshit, albeit for a stanza of song…. verse of poem…. duration of a film….. we could be lifted (we could lift others) we could see beyond the blizzards of mediocrity and stupidity.

She taught me that affording someone that fleeting moment of flight… catharsis….. insight was a vocation worth spending ones lifetime pursuing.

It is Jeanie that reminds me today why teaching is the most noble and profound profession of them all. It is her “Legacy” that has allowed her to outwit death for her lessons continue, instilled in all of us and shared with others and so it goes, along the line, branching upward and outward through the trajectory of time.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Jeanie not only single-handedly built the boat, instilled in each one of us the longing for that immeasurable immensity but she also gently nudged each one of our rafts from the shore, setting us on journeys around the world, journeys’ that are an ongoing testament to all she is… was and will forever be.

I sit here in New York pursuing my own play-writing dreams and watching this snow ballet from the 26th floor because of her.

Now the blizzard clears
Snowflakes’ melt on sidewalks.

Thank you Mrs McBean for the enduring and endless immensity of your lessons.

9/1/15

WHOONGA WARS

September10

 

In May this year I was tasked with heading up a writing and theatre-making workshop with community theatre participants from in and around KwaZulu-Natal. To generate material for the plays we were creating together, I asked the students to come up with a list of current social concerns that young writers should be confronting in their work. The drug whoonga was unanimously voted in first place.

It wasn’t the first time I had come across the concern or the word: Swahili onomatopoeia that allegedly refers to the sound the user hears when the combination of B-grade heroin and rat poison rushes into the system.

Whoonga certainly has a ring to it – say it a few times and it’s likely you won’t forget it. Whoonga. See? It leaves the lips (just as it enters the system) with an elongated ‘whoosh’.

For years, friends of mine had been complaining about the cadaverous looking whoonga boys (dealers) who hassled them at taxi ranks, while the media had devoted front pages to stories of junkies either robbing clinics or contracting HIV in order to obtain the antiretrovirals that were said – but not proven – to form part of the insidious heroin cocktail.

When I asked the group of community theatre writers to take to the rehearsal room floor and share a personal story related to our chosen topic, 22-year-old Phumzile Ndlovu was the first to accept my challenge.

She stood before the group and launched into the story of her cousin, Jabulo, and his five-year struggle with whoonga.

“My cousin was 21 when he moved from Johannesburg to my aunt’s house in Umlazi D section,” she told us.

“When he first arrived, we were excited to see him. He was very handsome and charming, but shortly after he came to Durban people in the community began to complain that things were going missing from their homes. It was learnt that Njabulo was not only stealing from us all, but using my aunt’s house to smoke and deal whoonga. When the neighbours found out there was big trouble. They threatened my aunt, telling her they would burn down the house unless action was taken. As time passed and the problem got worse, my family were left with no other choice but to evict Njabulo from the house.”

When I asked what became of him, Ndlovu told us he had joined the burgeoning ranks of whoonga refugees in Albert Park: a leafy inner-city refuge for addicts just a stone’s throw away from the Durban harbour.

“It was tragic to see what became of him,” she said, recalling how on trips to Durban she would occasionally pass the park and catch glimpses of him through the fence.

“I’d see him sitting there like a hobo, no longer a handsome young man but aged and filthy.”

*

It was around the same time that Nomusa Shembe – a senior manager for Safer Cities, community crime-prevention initiative – was assigned to look into the Albert Park situation.

There had been rumblings in the media about a nasty new drug on the scene and a brewing confrontation between fed up taxi owners and addicts – most of whom were thought to be foreign nationals.

Through Safer Cities, Shembe and her team set up a project to profile the park’s inhabitants. Of the 254 people they interviewed, 90% turned out to be South African nationals, and the majority of them admitted to frequenting the park because it provided easy access to whoonga.

As media and public attention intensified, city officials began floundering over what measures to take. Sure, Durban has faced a range of social catastrophes in the past, but a substance abuse problem of this scale and complexity, it seemed, was largely unprecedented.

Shembe and her team initiated  the Qalakabusha programme for Albert Park: a pilot intervention whereby a tent was erected in the park and a series of ill-fated outreach and rehab programmes activated.

The Safer Cities team might have had more success evaluating the strategies and lessons acquired by the neighbouring Indian community of Chatsworth, for whom whoonga is really just an old problem marauding under the guise of an exotic new name.

For Sam Pillay – the head of the Chatsworth Anti-Drug Forum – the drug’s implosion in the city centre is something he claims to have warned city officials about years ago.

Pillay was one of the first locals to address the problem of the “sugars” (also known as whoonga, nyaope and tie white), which exploded in his community back in 2005. After a public meeting was held at the Chatsworth Youth Centre and more than 1 000 irate community members packed into the hall, Pillay and a team of volunteers decided to establish the Chatsworth Anti-Drug forum (FDR).

When I asked how the forum initially set out to tackle the crisis, Pillay chuckled at their gung-ho naivety.

“In the beginning we thought it would be simple,” he recalls. “We would hand over the dealers’ home addresses to the police and that would be that, but we quickly learnt that the police knew exactly where these guys lived. As the FDR delved deeper we discovered that this was hardly a drug concocted by a few opportunists with a chemistry degree, but rather something similar to a massive corporation: with a CEO at the top, upper and middle management beneath, and the many distributors and dealers operating at the bottom.”

The local police force, Pillay told me, were only ever scoring minor victories at the bottom of the pyramid rather than gunning for the honchos at the top. The reason Pillay gave covered a range of familiar narratives, including corruption, bungled evidence, underqualified cops and numerous cases where specialised police units had been dispatched and drug busts heralded, but few convictions ever made.

“We soon learnt,” Pillay said, “that the only real success we could have in this struggle is in devoting all our energy into getting rid of the need for the dealer and treating addicts on a social level.”

“Why” I asked, “are the users themselves are not facing the brunt of the law? Surely the substance is illegal?”

The situation seems absurd: several hundred people permitted to smoke heroin joints in public parks when one can get thrown in prison (and given a criminal record) for being caught toking on something as innocuous as a spliff.

The answer, offered by Safer Cities’ Shembe, is that the problem has reached such an extent that local police simply aren’t equipped with facilities to deal with it.

But Pillay sees the discrepancies as a result of major gaps in policies and processes when it comes to making arrests.

“If you just catch a guy with either whoonga or sugars, it’s not like you’re catching them with dagga, because dagga is illegal. With whoonga you have to send them for a toxicology test and then wait for a toxicology report to come back, and, well, when there are several hundred of them at one time, where do you begin?”

Where and how the heroin is entering the province seems to be another area of dispute, with Pillay insisting most of it is coming from Chatsworth, while Shembe claims whoonga is produced and sold exclusively by Tanzanian cartels. 

Dr Lochan Naidoo – a Durban-based addiction consultant and president of the international narcotics control board – tells me South Africa and the southern route from Afghanistan and Pakistan has recently been identified as a major new route for the illegal Afghan heroin trade.

“South Africa,” Naidoo says, “was supposed to be the transit point via the Durban and Eastern Cape ports for heroin to travel onwards to Europe, but now what we are seeing is that every transit point is becoming a user point. Durban is a clear example of this.”

At a meeting held at the beginning of July by the Dikonia and Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology, Naidoo did little to calm city and public anxieties when he warned that the worst is still to come.

“White heroin, ladies and gentleman, has now also arrived in the city of Durban.”

“The difference” Naidoo went on to explain to the room full of scribbling journos and slack-jawed suburbanites, “between brown and white heroin is that brown heroin is smoked while white heroin injected. As tolerance increases for brown heroin, users are forced to start injecting the drug instead.”

“So what are the SAPS and Metro police forces doing about this?” I asked Shembe, who paused for a short while to consider her answer. I got the sense that criticising any of the departments with which her organisation is currently trying to co-operate might endanger an already precarious process.

“The police tend to shrug this off as a social problem,” she said diplomatically, “and we keep saying to them, ‘But what about the dealers?’ They respond by telling us they are on it, that there are intelligence units working on the ground, but I’m saying we need to start seeing the results, because until the root causes are tackled we will forever be going around in circles treating the symptoms.”

She has a point. Too often the cause is attributed to the addicts themselves, folks whom up-in-arms suburbanites and news-hungry media tend to demonise without really understanding that these are simply the harrowed faces fronting the crisis. As I embarked on three months’ of research into whoonga, I discovered that this was a social problem whose subterranean tentacles extended far wider and deeper into the strata of our fractured society than most would ever care to imagine.

*

Durban motorists would often refer to their fleeting glimpses of the whoonga hordes in Albert Park as something resembling a scene from a postapocalyptic zombie film. This was in early 2013 when the problem was largely relegated to the leafy and concealed confines of an inner-city park.

Back then, motorists could take an alternate route home and pretend the problem didn’t exist. But then the police, tired of being called lazy and apathetic, finally got around to evicting the vagrants and sealing off the park with a barbed wire fence.

 

Where exactly the whoonga colony would go after the eviction didn’t seem of much concern. What mattered was that something had been done and that the notorious “Whoonga Park” was no more.

Of course, it wasn’t long before the dazed addicts regrouped, first decamping to a nearby Metro railway line before finally re-establishing themselves in Botha Park (which is more traffic island than park) on the corner of Leo Boyd and Anton Lembede streets, which is also on the periphery of the Glenwood suburbs.

Now the wretched mass was no longer a sight one saw in passing or heard mentioned (with a shudder) at dinner parties. When you stopped at the Glenwood traffic lights, you were forced to scrutinize the full extent of the squalor, to stare the addiction in its vacant, sallow eyes.

With this relocation came new waves of crime and hysteria.

There were smash-and-grabs at robots, a series of violent house robberies; a woman was raped in a suburban park while another was found murdered and mutilated in a Florida Road gutter. An underground network of tunnels linking the suburbs to the city was discovered by the police, which caused further anxiety.

The tunnels, built in the 1930s, were reported to extend for 6km and enable the drug-addled underworld to pop into affluent neighbourhoods (through manholes) whenever their cravings necessitated it – which, for whoonga addicts, is said to be between four and six times a day.

Outraged letters were penned to newspapers; petitions the length of telephone books barricaded politicians’ office doors. A mass of Glenwood residents united under the unfortunate – but rather apt – acronym of SOB (Save Our Berea) and spent weekends waving placards outside Durban City Hall.

Suburban parks became no-go zones and unsuspecting locals using them for recreational purposes soon became suspects. A group of teenagers playing soccer was accosted by police after an online forum suspected they were smoking whoonga. “WHOONGA!” wailed Facebook forums in caps lock. The drug sent subscriptions to private security firms rocketing – until it was discovered that many of the security guards employed by these firms were addicted to whoonga themselves.

It was the whoonga gevaar and no one was safe. Hell, even white kids had begun dabbling.

*

From the rooftop of Durban resident Raul Quintas’s office building, situated opposite the Botha Park whoonga colony, I scanned the contested site from a distance. Polystyrene food containers circled the bare feet of a few hundred people who warmed themselves around fire drums. In one corner of the island, a gazebo flapped dismally in the wind – this, I was told, was the city’s idea of a rehabilitation centre.

Quintas sat at the head of his boardroom table, surrounded by his employees..

Without much prompting, the office ladies launched into a series of stories about the decline of the area, explaining that the rot set in after the whoonga addicts were relocated.

I was told of a lady from the neighbouring funeral parlour who had her earrings torn from her ears. Female students were being assaulted on their way to the University of Technology’s city campus. The chorus of disapproval rose with each new declaration.

“We can’t run our business in this area any more.”

“It’s unhealthy what they’re doing!”

“It seems the city is providing them with toilets and feeding them from the park. It’s almost as if they want them to feel more at home here.”

“I see them every morning just squatting there, doing their business in broad daylight.”

“Even the street cleaners arrive wearing gas masks to clean the area! Tell me of another city in the world where this happens? “

When I asked what Quintas and co intended to do about the situation, his secretary unveiled a wad of paper containing several hundred signatures from fellow gatvol business owners in the area. The petition urged city officials to take immediate action against the “invasion” or face legal action.

When I mentioned whoonga, the boardroom exchanged a few anxious glances, as though it was the first time they had encountered the word.

“That’s not our business,” growled Quintas, thumbing through his reams of signatures as proof. “All we know is that we have a right to be protected. We have a constitutional right!”

*

Quintas and his staff are not the only irate citizens who have been seeking action from city officials and politicians – but apart from popping down to Whoonga Park for the occasional front page publicity opportunity, the authorities are yet to release any sort of tangible plan of action.

Perhaps they are still reeling from one of their Whoonga Park safaris, when one pin-striped honcho was accosted by an addict who turned out to be the estranged son of ANC national spokesperson Jackson Mthembu. If anything, one would think such an incident would have driven government to prioritise the issue.

Instead the responsibility of coming up with a plan has been left to Safer Cities’ Shembe, who is scrambling against time, bureaucracy and limited resources to implement an ambitious seven-pillar strategy that will focus on aspects such as rehabilitation, skills development, the placement of the homeless population in shelters and the reintegration of addicts back into their communities.

But the Chatsworth Anti-Drug Forum’s Pillay is not convinced, dismissing Shembe’s proposal as an attractive option on paper but destined to fail in practice.

“You can’t go integrating people back into their communities if you haven’t had success with the rehabilitation component, which they still don’t,” he huffed. “I’ve tried to help them in this regard but they are governed by the department of health, which means they can only do what is written down. What I’m telling them from my 10 years of experience is not yet written down.”

So while authorities and experts deliberate over policy and implementation, SOB, Quinta’s business and countless other organisations sit anxiously awaiting a response.

In an open letter to Durban Mayor James Nxumalo (published in the Daily News on June 3), SOB cautioned that that unless urgent action was taken, the city would find itself teetering on the edge of a precipice.

But a week later there still had not been a peep from the mayor’s office. Now the city, it seemed, was no longer teetering but rather tumbling headlong into the forewarned abyss.

A week after I spoke to Quintas, a violent clash erupted between residents from the nearby Dalton Road hostel in Umbilo and the Botha Park addicts.

Dalton Road hostel dwellers, it turned out, were equally frustrated with the city’s inability to take action. They were tired of falling prey to criminals, tired of taking flak from police for crimes they hadn’t committed, tired of being marginalised and ignored. A group of 30 or so irate hostel dwellers descended on Whoonga Park with sticks, knobkerries, whips and bricks to mete out vigilante justice.

Mahala editor and journalist Samora Chapman – armed with his skateboard and camera – was one of the first reporters on the scene, and wrote in his article, titled ‘Whoonga attack’: “The mob caught up with the man directly across the road from me. They beat him as he ran and swayed and zigzagged. He took five blows and kept going like a wounded animal until eventually they overwhelmed him and he dropped in the middle of the road. He took several more blows on the ground. Thuds and crunches. Then the cops came screaming down the road. And the mob just kept running, hitting a left down towards Sidney Road. Like wolves.”

 

Chapman’s article on the Dalton Road attacks went on to rack up thousands of hits across social media platforms.

*

I met Mahala editor Samora Chapman a few weeks prior to the Dalton Hostel / Botha Park incident. I was hoping to learn a little more about his experiences following the Durban whoonga scene for the past few years.

 

Whereas most journos have approached the story with trepidation, skirting the fringes of notorious hangout’s like Albert  Parkand Botha Park, Chapman has braved the front lines, befriending addicts and dealers in the process. While his pop-culture approach (Harry Potter and the Ninja Turtles all make appearances) has irked more sober-minded readers, he has managed to grow a substantial and eager following on the Mahala website.

During our meeting, Chapman bemoaned how he had become the go-to guy for journalists and researchers looking for an angle on the issue.

“Look man, journalism is my livelihood,” he said, doodling on his arm with a ballpoint pen. “I can’t really tell you anything that you wouldn’t already find by reading my articles on the site.”

I returned home to read the entries in the Mahala archives, some of which begin with  declarations like: “If you want to live to see tomorrow, don’t go to Whoonga Park. It’s the scariest place on planet earth.”

Chapman’s  woolly descriptions often send him veering into problematic realms of sensationalism and even science fiction, but he does seem to empathise with the folks he has dubbed “whoonga heads”.

In most of his expeditions, whoonga users are depicted as otherworldly and alien, a sort of subhuman species, while the writer casts himself  as an “interloper from the mainland” setting out to explore and record the remnants of this “lost world”.

In one episode Chapman notices hieroglyphic graffiti scrawled across the walls of an inner-city drug den and ponders: “Could this be a clue – a pure, unfiltered form of expression from the people of Whoonga Park?”

Chapman’s adventures seem to abide by a standard action-adventure formula, with most of his accounts culminating with him narrowly escaping death. Readers, it seems, can’t get enough of this Tin-Tin in Whoonga Land sort of reportage. Needless to say, the comments section on the site is full of zealots offering up suggestions along the lines of: “Why not issue free bags of whoonga laced with arsenic to solve the problem?”

For the most part, the “whoonga heads” in Chapman’s posts come across as seething, vomiting, delirious, bewildered, buzzing herds, ghouls or mobs (his choice of metaphor veers between animals and supernatural creatures). He even signs off one article with “Just another day in the jungle” – as though he is about to retire home from a day’s hunting trip to sip on a G&T.

In one of his most incriminating flights of fancy, Chapman enters one of the city’s “forbidden zones” and describes the ensuing assault as: “A naked lunatic burst out of a plastic tent, wailing like a werewolf and wielding a six-foot sjambok. He came running at us with intent to kill and we fled into the night. But he wouldn’t give up chasing, hunting us through back alleys and whipping the air like demon sent straight from hell to drink our young white-boy blood and drag our bodies back to his den.”

It would seem such descriptions might not be out of place in the pages of the latest  Walking Dead screenplay. One wonders what the constant zombification or pop-culture packaging of this crisis is doing to further the plight of the misunderstood user, the addict who, beneath the incessant denigration, is a really just a human being in the grips of a terrible affliction.

For Durban activist and journalist Vanessa Burger, the knee-jerk condemnation throughout the Durban press and social networks is doing nothing to aid the cause, but rather further contributing to what she calls “Durban’s latest and greatest humanitarian disaster”. 

In her damning and insightful article – ‘Whoonga Park: The bigger picture’, written in the wake of the Dalton Road attacks – Burger cautions how thoughtless comments, deep-rooted prejudice and the promotion of personal agendas is contributing considerably to an already volatile situation.

“It is not helpful and it’s extremely irresponsible,” she goes on to caution, “for members of the largely middle- to upper-class community to sensationalise and condemn out of hand the violent reaction to a humanitarian crisis that has been growing on their doorstep for years but which they were mostly too self-absorbed, too ignorant or too careless to bother about.”

*

A few blocks up the road from Botha Park, on the second floor of a breezy block of flats in Glenwood, I chatted to Prudence Dlamini , who works here twice a week as a domestic worker. Prudence sat among heaps of freshly ironed laundry, her eyes darting about anxiously as she recalled her son Damon’s year-long struggle with whoonga.

Damon, she told me, was staying at the Newlands rehabilitation centre for three months – part of Nomusa Shembe’s Seven Pillar Programme. Until recently the programme had a dismal success rate.

“How is he doing?” I asked.

“For the first week he was in terrible agony and unable to sleep,” she told me, “but we pray the worst is over now.”

Dlamini told me she was fully aware that the most daunting part of her son’s rehabilitation still lay ahead. She acknowledged that it was a malaise of boredom and disenchantment that led him to experiment with the drug in the first place, and that unless she could secure him employment before he is discharged from the centre, it was highly likely he would fall into the same cycle.

When I asked what had been the hardest part of the process, she cited the drug’s effects on her son’s personality as particularly distressing.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t recognise him any more,” she said. “The child I raised would never try to get money out of me like that. The child I loved would never use force on me like that.”

The aggression shown by Damon, I was told, arises from the addict’s need to alleviate the debilitating stomach pains whoonga causes. The pains are related to the use of Rattex, or strychnine, which is mixed into the heroin to prevent the user’s blood from clotting. Strychnine helps to keep the blood flowing, preventing embolisms and ensuring the user lives on to purchase their next hit. As the body builds an immunity to the substance, the blood begins to form small clots in the veins, which often causes whoonga users to scratch compulsively.

With mounting pain and rising tolerance levels come further cost implications: what starts as a daily expense of R25 soon rises to R125; as the cramps intensify so too does the need for the next toke, and it’s at this point that many resort to violence to obtain it.

“Their whole personality just changes,” Pillay told me. “They just become different people and the greatest tragedy of this situation is that they have absolutely no control over it.”

Pillay recalled the stories of a young man he knew who, in a fit of desperation, and pain brutally murdered his grandmother, and another teenager whose exasperated parents chained him to his bed for a month of involuntary cold turkey. 

For Shembe, the failure of Durban rehab centres (out of the first 25 patients referred to Newlands Centre, only five were able to complete the programme; of the second group, only two made it through) can be attributed to a variety of factors, but many problems come from youngsters being taken off the street and placed directly into the rehab programmes without the correct mediation. In these structured environments, many of the patients prove violent and disruptive.

Community theatre participant Phumzile Ndlovu’s cousin Njabulo was one such patient. After he had returned to her family home from Albert Park stricken with HIV, his aunt had forced him into a hospital programme. But Njabulo didn’t last longer than 24 hours after it was discovered that friends had smuggled whoonga into the ward.

A few tokes of the drug had revived him to the point where he was able to rob nurses and patients in the ward. He was discharged the following morning.

For many patients, it seems the withdrawal symptoms are too intense to tolerate, and Shembe admits that the Newlands facility does still not offer the correct drug aid to assist weaning users off whoonga. It’s a problem she claims needs to be passed at a national level, and it is an agenda she is trying to get the department of health to take more seriously.

Pillay, however, is not convinced by the city’s proposed three-month rehabilitation model, dismissing it as “unnecessary” and “unsustainable”. For Pillay, the city simply doesn’t have enough beds or time to deal with the scale of the problem.

“When you look at the number of addicts who are successfully being rehabilitated, the number is dramatically less than the number of guys who are getting addicted each day,” he says. “And what does that do for crime? What does that do to the economy? What’s the social impact on families? It’s a far-reaching catastrophe, this.”

From Pillay’s experience with the Anti-Drug Forum, he has learnt that to wean users off the substance in five days to two weeks. But it’s a long-term process, and crucial to it is a tablet called Naltrexone, a drug the state still refuses to implement in local treatment centres.

For Dr Lochan Naidoo, the president of International Narcotics Control Board of South Africa, the government first needs to acknowledge that the treatment of heroin addiction is a specialised field that requires a highly trained task force to tackle it. He dismissed Shembe’s proposal to enlist the help of social workers and Unisa students to deal with addicts as an insult to those in need of help.

“What we fail to understand in this country,” Naidoo said, “is that a large portion of people turning to whoonga do so because they have problem with abandonment and poor engagement with their families.” 

Such is the case with Mbali, an addict in her twenties who had been sleeping in Botha Park for the past four months and who agreed to attend a meeting hosted by the Dikonia and Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology.

The meeting was called to discuss the whoonga crisis in the city, and organisers were adamant that the discussion take place based on principles of respect and constructive engagement.

Mbali sat at a table beside representatives of the metro police and South African police service, as well as academics, drug specialists and city officials. She agreed to attend the meeting in a bid to voice the concerns and views of the people living in Botha Park.

When it was her turn to speak, she rose sweating, wincing uncomfortably under the sterile glare of office lights.

“Can you tell us how we can help the people of Botha Park, Mbali?” a journalist called from the back of the room.

“Describe to us what life is like inside the park?” implored another.

When Mbali spoke, the frantic scribbling of pens almost drowned out her already barely audible responses.

“Most of us living at the park don’t have employment,” she told the room. “But we are not all criminals. Those who are criminals and try to hide in our group are pointed out to the police. Things are hard enough for us as it is. We don’t want to be associated with crime.”

Mbali went on to describe how she used to visit Botha Park daily to score whoonga and started living there after she was kicked out of her family home. She spoke of the sleeping conditions at the park, the cold winter nights, the terror she felt during the Dalton Road assault where a friend was paralysed in the attack.

Although Mbali welcomed the city’s assistance, she set out to remind the room of the social circumstances that fuelled her addiction in the first place.

“They city is trying to help us. They came yesterday and took some of us from the park to rehab, but what about after? Most of us don’t have homes to go back to. Many of the kids in the park have lost their parents and their houses have been sold. We need shelter, places to stay. We need jobs.”

A factor often overlooked on the tenuous road to recovery is what happens after the rehabilitation programme is completed. As Naidoo suggested, most addicts have been kicked out of their  homes and communities, and are not welcome back. There is a great deal of mistrust and betrayal that many family and community members are not prepared to endure again.

To counteract this, Shembe has been working with the department of correctional services and a veritable army of substance-abuse councillors, so that ‘rehabilitated’ individuals are accompanied by a person from correctional services when braving the risky return trip home. But for Shembe it’s the lack of existing post-care community support structures that is the greatest failure of her proposed model.

“It is crucial that the recovering patient is able to consistently check in with support structures, and until such programmes exist, our department is simply wasting valuable resources and time.”

The only solution, Naidoo suggested, is to call on a common body of knowledge that exists on this area. Over the past few years the city has called him into various meetings, but − as with the FDR’s Pillay − failed to act upon any of the insight shared.

“All we can do as a society is put structures in place that are meaningful and address the needs of the people taking this drug,” said Naidoo. “One of the primary issues we have to acknowledge is that not everyone out there on the streets wants to stop taking drugs.”

After the meeting I introduced myself to Mbali over a soggy plate of cocktail sandwiches. She was far more animated and at ease outside of the formalities of the conference and told me that one of the drug counselors at the meeting offered to treat her for free.

“I’m so excited, I want to get rid of this thing in my life,” she beamed, wiping the sweat from her brow with a snack-tray serviette before asking if I was able to give her R20 before she returned to the park.

I brushed over her request, attempting to change the subject, but she touched my arm gently and persisted.

“If you really want to help me like you say you do, then please can I have R20!”

*

But barely a week after the Dikonia and Urban Futures meeting, it seemed the positive outcomes of the discussion and co-operation pledged between police units, addicts and activists had amounted to very little.

The SAPS and metro police launched a joint raid on the Botha Park island, sending the whoonga population once again fleeing into the night while setting fire to their meagre belongings. Those who were arrested were dumped back in their respective communities.

While politicians, police and Berea residents celebrated a minor and belated victory  local newspapers were already reporting on a variety of new satellite colonies mushrooming in parks and public spaces around the city.

As I drove past the vacant Botha Park island, I thought of Njabulo and his tragic end. I thought of Damon and his re-entry into the world after rehab. I thought of Mbali and the raid, and regretted not having given her that R20.

I thought about Shembe’s Seven Pillar strategy, a plan that is being implemented to deal only with the thousand or so vagrants who congregate in city spaces – a mere handful of the population currrenlty in the grips of this addiction.

As Botha Park retreated in the review mirror, Naidoo’s closing statement at the Dikonia and Urban Futures meeting lingered in my thoughts.

“This is just the beginning,” Naidoo warned. “What we see going on here in Durban is not going to get any smaller – it’s about to get massive. South Africa, I’m afraid to say, is set to become the next South America.”

*

For Phumzile – the community theatre participant – not even Njabulo’s death was to occur without incident.

“He was 25,” she said, drawing her monologue to a close.

“He had been addicted to whoonga for more than five years. That’s five years that my aunt and family had to deal with this problem. When they brought his body from the mortuary to our house for the vigil, we noticed immediately that there was something odd, something strange about it.”

“Strange?” I asked.

“His body it was … how do I put this … soft. You see, it’s not supposed be soft when a person passes on. In Zulu culture this means that the person’s spirit may come back and take somebody from the family, or worse, one of us might inherit these problems from him. So the following morning we all took turns to talk to him and calm him and clear the passage for him, but while we were doing this… his… his…”

She paused and took a deep breath before continuing.

“He started moving his head and hands like a person who is still alive. It seemed as if his spirit wasn’t ready to leave. And so, under the guidance of our elders, my cousins and I were made to take sticks and beat the body.”

“You beat the corpse?”

“Yes, we took turns hitting him. I was scared to do this because even if a person was bad while alive, we have always been taught to respect the dead. But we had to hit him. In order for Njabulo to not come back and torment us, we had to hit him. We had to defend ourselves and so we hit him – we hit him, we hit him.”

Despite the family’s best efforts, Phumzile explained that the body would not keep still. It was at this point in the proceedings that her aunt was made to transport the body back to Albert Park.

“The park was the only real home he knew, and we imagined he would find peace there. At the park my aunt bought whoonga from one of the dealers and began to sprinkle it over Njabulo’s corpse, touching some to his lips until his body finally softened and surrendered. At the funeral we all sprinkled whoonga into his grave. We did this so he would be at peace.”

Phumzile concluded by clasping her hands together in what seemed a combined gesture of relief and prayer.

“We did this so he would never visit us again.”

 

Neil Coppen would like to thank The CON where Part 1 and Part 2 of the article were first published, Loyd Geyde,  Ricky Tucker and Jason Chung

 

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Extract from the book:Theatre Directing in South Africa

August28

The following is an extract taken from the book: Theatre directing in South Africa which contains interviews with ten South African contemporary theatre directors/creators ; Simthembile Prince Lamla,  Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom,  Greg Homann,  Amy Jeptha,  Pusetso Thibedi,  Lara Foot,  Zinzi Princess Mhlongo, Brett Bailey, Bheki Mkhwane and myself. 

The book was written by Roel Twjinstra and Emma Durden and is a collaboration with the drama department of UKZN (Howard college) and UKZN- Pietermaritzburg campus. Published by Jacana.

1.10

Neil Coppen

“We have to attract and excite new audiences into our theatres and to do this we have to compete with the relentlessly visual- realms of film and television. It is for this reason that I often employ and reference cinematic devices in my plays. Working cinematically simply means I am working in a story- telling vernacular that younger generations have access to.”

When he was a boy of six years old, Neil saw the theatre production Singing in the Rain at the Natal Playhouse, and was transfixed as whole worlds transformed and evolved before his eyes. An obsession with theatre was born.

His mother was a nurse, but now spends her time as Neil’s’ co-producer at Think Theatre, a company with emphasis on development and educational theatre. Neil Coppen calls his father a creative entrepreneur who carved a niche for himself in various professions and business ventures including law, politics, timeshare, community and eco- tourism and technology. Neil comments “we come from a family of inventors, jewellers, artists and florists”.

He notes “my father inspired me to multi -task and work across disciplines and take creative risks, and my grandmother made me want to be a storyteller”.  As a child he spent a lot of time with his grandmother who was bedridden, and would tell stories that focused on her own childhood and her father’s experiences in the prison camps of the Second World-War.  

One could say that from my Grandmother’s stories was born my first real impulse to write. In my later exploits as a theatre-maker I was consoled by the idea that my grandmother’s stories (in fact any stories that interested me) could be replayed or relived every time a group of actors set out to perform them on a stage.”

As a child, Neil wrote small scripts for his sister and himself.  He notes how many of his plays have children at their centre, where South African life and history is viewed through the eyes of child (or child- like) protagonists: “This allows me as a theatre-maker to utilise more fantastical and imaginary theatrical conceits. Think Tin Bucket Drum and Tree Boy .This allows me to take a whimsical or off- centre approach or lens on what is often a cruel and brutal reality. “

Throughout his childhood, Neil was exposed by his mother to various aspects of the performing arts. He encountered opera, ballet, contemporary Dance as well as the works of Shakespeare, Athol Fugard and Mbongeni Ngema. He joined a community drama group headed up by theatre activist Kessie Govender (the founder of the Stable Theatre), and it was here that Neil came into contact with work- shopped and devised theatre practices.

During this period, the Coppen family had become friends with theatre-maker Nicholas Ellenbogen, who ran the Theatre for Africa Company, and allowed the young Neil to sit in on rehearsals and later travel to his first Grahamstown festival to sell programmes at the door of the theatre. It was during this festival that Neil came into contact with the work of South African theatre legends: Andrew Buckland, Ellis Pearson, Mbogeni Ngema and Yael Farber.

After high school, Neil chose not to study Drama or theatre making but rather obtain a Creative Writing degree through UNISA. During this phase he worked predominately as an actor for various theatre companies around the country. He also began to travel the world and immerse himself in a range of diverse experiences: teaching at a theatre summer camp in New York, working as a dialect coach and stand- in on film sets, producing a large scale musical project and working as a free -lance journalist and travel writer. He says that all these experiences have shaped and inspired his work as a playwright and theatre-maker. He is most fascinated by the concept of ‘total theatre’ and comments:

“Peter Schaffer’s play Royal Hunt of the Sun inspired me with the notion of ‘total theatre’ in the way the visual symbols and elements were as seminal as the text was.  Most playwrights focused exclusively on dialogue without considering the overall visual impact and context of their plays, but Schaffer was adamant that music, lighting, sound design, costume, set were important tools to creating a powerful and immersive theatrical experience.  I loved Schaffer’s notion that theatre should be a visceral and all- encompassing experience for an audience and I set out to achieve this in the work I created by paying equal attention to the text, design, lighting, score, sound and staging conventions.”

Talking about his work Abnormal Loads, Neil notes “I wanted to free up the theatre, avoid pandering to the idea of South African drama as static, a bunch of talking heads around the kitchen sink or one location. I wanted to show audiences that stage plays can be as dynamic and engrossing as the big budget stories one sees in the cinema. I adopted various cinematic devices of flashback and flash- forward, close- up and long- shot and attempted to whirl the audience through time and history while keeping track of the fated trajectories of four (hopefully) well -developed and believable South African characters.”

Neil explains that his plays are a product of a long incubation period of research, devising and writing.  Abnormal Loads took him five years of research and preparation before he produced it at the National Arts Festival 2011, where he was featured after winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Theatre.

Neil likes to focus on character studies and stories which fall outside the norm and which offer audiences more complex alternatives to what they have come to expect. He says he is constantly looking and exploring the idea of ‘freedom’ in his narratives. Examining his characters’ relationships to the societies they live in and under. He believes it is the duty of theatre-makers in South Africa to work very hard and subverting stereotypes and reductive clichés as opposed to simply pandering to audiences’ expectations of them. “We are a complex, contradictory, beautiful and pretty fucked- up nation and people” says Neil, “and theatre–makers should embrace this, use their platforms and stages to interrogate these notions both critically and imaginatively.”

Neil is currently working on several new stage plays and screenplays set in and around the province of KZN while collaborating with a variety of Community theatre groups and emerging playwrights in the region. He is one of the twelve South African playwrights commissioned to write a new work for the Royal Court Theatre in London. Coppen’s newest play NewFoundLand will open in the new-year alongside his anticipated local reworking of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

NewFoundLand by Neil Coppen

August28

 

NewFoundLand is the latest play by Neil Coppen and focuses on the intertwining lives and dreams of two South African men Jacques: an Afrikaans anesthetist based in a Pietermartizburg community hospital and Sizwe: a choreographer and student at UKZN who has received a calling (Ukuthwasa) from his ancestors to become a Sangoma.

Both men have been raised in conservative communities and are attempting to forge spaces for themselves separate from the cultural, historical and religious forces that seem to bind them to the past.

When Jacques and Sizwe meet for a casual sex hook-up, what is meant to be a brief exchange turns into a profound journey into shared consciousness, and an exploration into the seemingly invisible materials that exist between religion and science, medicine and faith and memory and forgetting.

Coppen’s play has been described as a hallucinatory and unusual exploration of sexuality,love and loneliness in contemporary South Africa, and asks the question is forgetting a way of healing or an ultimate form of denial?

NewFoundLand has been developed in conjunction with Britain’s premiere playwriting Institute: The Royal Court and Coppen was recently invited to London for a staged reading of his work at the theatre as part of the New Plays from South Africa: after 20 Years of Democracy program.

 

 

Inventory of a South Coast town.

August28

Inventory of a South Coast town.

Aryan kids sipping on over sized strawberry milkshakes
arcades rotting avocados
bananas box-wine bikinis
bouffants bakkies 
crocodile skinned Christians
cold slaw
Complimentary blow-job shooters that come with the bill
cigarettes, country-music
chlorine casinos C and sand real estate
fish-guts fiberglass glass-blown dolphins
dream-catchers driftwood curios dodgem cars
damp leather
Jesus saves Kurt Darren knee-high-socks
kegs karaoke lighthouses
leopard print liquor-stores locksmiths lust
mildew
Neil Diamond
neon poodles perms prostitutes
panel beaters
permed panel-beaten prostitutes
rope lights
rust
sweat seafood suntan lotion second-hand sex-shop snake-parks
sea-shell ashtrays
sweet Caroline uh…uh…oh
salt teal timeshare
tannies who knit in public
tank-tops
Oom Willies Road house
Veldskoens
Vomit
wind-chimes
waffles

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IMPRESSSIONS OF FOGG

October3

 

IMPRESSSIONS OF FOGG

 A Log Book

26th July -5 August 2013

I cast my eyes up from the jetty and can just make out the wild- haired, top-hatted figure of Phillipus Fogg. He’s standing at the ships prow: palms planted on the railing, one big- booted-foot crossed over the other and a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his cursive smile.

 His faithful Jack Russel- Vlooi sits at his side, a little pissed at having to portion her master’s affection with a new travel companion: a Grey Lourie which now sits and shits upon his shoulder.

I watch Fogg take in the shabby harbour side-city for a final time, squinting into a sun made spectral by the morning mists. 

His imagination pushing now beyond the reaches of the skyline. Beyond the tangle of washing lines and satellite dishes. 

Out to the next continent, the next wondrous wilderness…. uncharted terrain.

*

He had a nose-bleed one night in his sleep. I found the stain on one of our pillow cases the morning after. At first it seemed the blotch was in the shape of a dancing man but when viewed from upside down it came to resemble a map: a  undiscovered island dissembling into a series of splattered archipelagos.

*

I first met Fogg at an expedition-planning meeting in Cape Town. Upon our first introduction you might say I found him both enthralling and galling. Certainly I was impressed, impressed by his age (he was 21) and, considering his relatively short time spent on the planet, the vast quantity of information he had managed to cram into his skull.

It seemed he was versed in most subjects: music, travel, mythology, literature, cinema and could talk with genuine authority on them when most his age might  simply regurgitate Wikipedia summaries to impress.

Dostoevsky,Tarkovsky and Miyazaki he would bandy about as if they were mere contemporaries of his and while I greatly admire all these artists, I am cautious to raise them in conversation for the fear of mispronouncing their names.

Fogg spoke with an insight that befitted his title of General Knowledge Quiz runner-up in his final high-school year.

 In that instant, watching him from across the table, I felt like Kerouac might have when first confronted by the cocksure audacity of Cassady.

When our meeting finally concluded (and Fogg had found a reason to disagree with almost 95 % of everything I had to say) I was left with a rather disconcerting urge to scalp him like a hard boiled- egg and consume the content of his brains for breakfast.

*

He was fond of ellipses.   

 . . .

*

His boots had once belonged to his grandfather who had spent a large part of his days hunting in South- West Namibia. After his grandfather’s passing, Fogg ensured he never embarked on an expedition without them.  He honoured his ancestor by planting his feet daily in them. This way soles would forever mingle and new generations stroll in tandem with the last.

  *

After days of trekking through the abandoned suburbs and cities we tear away foliage to uncover the lost Monument. We are met by imposing bearded guardians sculpted into the structures four- corners.  

Men resting disillusioned chins on the barrels of their shotguns. What thoughts lie cemented into their skulls we wonder? Do they stand vigil contemplating -for all eternity- whether to pull the trigger or not? Are they concerned that the splatter of their granite brains might sully the monuments exterior.

*

Inside our torches scan walls to reveal a chronicle of this odd tribe’s history. Embroidered hangings transform their tales into primitive pixels. Each tapestry resembling a screenshot from some 80’s video game. Let’s call it Boer–Fighter (Similar to Street- fighter) only with characters gleefully belting natives with over-sized bibles.https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/images/cleardot.gif

   *

Sculpted tableaux’s along the walls depicts the tribe’s journey to the Southern continent: their escape over mountain passes, run-in’s with the coal-skinned savages (an orgy of flesh and livestock he had aptly titled it) and the almighties imperishable promise to them.

It was on this promise that the monument was founded centuries ago. The date of the vow and victory is carved into a cenotaph which is sunken into the floor of the temple. 

Once a year (on the day of the battle) the sun aligns with a hole in the ceiling and pours forth to illuminate the phrase: ‘Ons Vir Jou Suid Afrika’

*

Earlier that afternoon we had observed a tour-bus slug into the monument parking-lot and unleash hoards of Japanese explorers.  We watched them stumble out one by one, wrestling with a series of sequinned umbrellas which when opened splintered shards of sunlight in every conceivable direction.

I am of the understanding that satellites registered this flash-mob-brolly-refraction from space.

*

On one of the temple walls we sight a woman, let’s call her Anna Maart. Anna is sculpted into the same tableaux I mentioned moments ago.

Anna has her lap-top open while the men busy themselves, setting up camp in the background. Light from the screen spills across her fretful face as she checks the GPS co-ordinates for the following mornings Drakensberg crossing.  A daunting descent lies ahead.

 Anna pens an email back to the fatherland. Pens a mail back to her loving Ouma who whiles her days away in Holland chain-smoking and cursing God.

 Anna writes of the week’s dismal string of tribulations. She doesn’t imagine her and the kids making it out alive but she dare express this to her husband Willem. Willem with his Boer- maak- a-plan demeanour.  Willem the eternal fucking optimist!

                                                                                                                *

After spotting a Grey Lourie in a tree outside the Monument, Fogg had crouched down to sketch the specimen in his travel- journal (A journal titled: The Motherfucking Essence of Progress). Once the drawing was complete I watched him coax the bird to his shoulder with fig pressed between his concert pianist fingers. Vlooi growled when the Lourie took residence on her master’s shoulder. Shot them both a disapproving eye.

*

“Go-way….. Go-way” Fogg’s pet Lourie cried out as the Deco Galleon (Queen Anstey’s the First) set sail into the turbulent surf.

“Come back….Come back” I want to yell but resist.

Fogg was seventeen- stories up with his ear-phones in, lost to the swathes of mortar and mist. Besides what chance does a lone human-voice stand against the all-consuming cacophony of Animal Collective?

*

After his departure I couldn’t quite bring myself to relegate the bloody pillow-case to the laundry basket. I had not the heart to end the man’s dance or lose my secret map to that unconscious island.

*

 Perhaps I admired Fogg’s ability to never once look back. If he did he might too often see companions and friends left on the shore, staring at their shoes, just a little stupefied with love and awe.

*

“I’m sure to warn people not to get too attached” he had cautioned me shortly after our first introduction.

*

… Extended ellipses…

*

I should have heeded his advice.

*

Alone I sat (His ship a spec on the horizon) my feet dangling off the edge of the pier. Smoking another cigarette and setting a new date to quit, in-between contemplating the fate of trash-bloated fish eddying around the jetty legs.

FINN

June28

When my grandmother was dying I used to hold up her body to the window so she could peer into garden outside. It was here that she trained her eyes on the foliage hoping to sight a flash of the elusive Natal Robin. There was huge excitement at each sighting. She was bed-ridden in those final years, this window was her frame on the world. A mis-en-scene that featured a variety of birds, butterflies and the occasional pack of Vervet monkey’s tight-roping the neighbour’s wall. Lovely as they were they were regulars, entertaining and welcome distractions but not quite understanding (as their counterpart the Robin did) that one is made more desirable when fostering an air of mystery about themselves. The robin with its burning breast, witnessed as a fleeting smudge on green, now that was the ticket, that was the one you waited (mostly to be stood up for). When it arrived in her final days, I held her body up so she could see it and she wept with relief that it had taken the trouble to pay her a final visit. Since her passing I have associated the Natal Robin with her omen, her angel. I am not the sappy metaphysical sort but grief causes one to attach especial significance to creatures or things that ordinarily might not invite a second thought. I have not seen the Robin in the garden since her passing, perhaps once but in retrospect it may well have been a thrush (the robins more deceptive understudy) similar in proportion only with a less officious breast and far more mellow (read less impressive) in hue. Yesterday when grappling with my canine companion Finn, his ear out-turned like a pink hibiscus flower , his body riddled in tumours, that ginger-beer fizz diminished from his princely eyes I glanced up to see the robin just a few metres off. As fast as it appeared it vanished taking with it the weight of terrible uncertainty that has hovered over us for some months. Just the night before was a dream of my grandmother, who although close to my heart, like the robin has been somewhat absent over the last few years from my dreaming thicket. This time it was Guy Buttery and not John Lennon (as stated in her obituary all those years back) who was sitting on the edge of her bed like some benevolent spirit-guide and strumming a plaintive song on his guitar. To my Finn, the noblest beast that ever was and will be, the driver of sheep off Transkei cliffs, an intrepid prince who padded alongside us through a thousand golden afternoons, his less glamorous but nevertheless faithful accomplice Sophie—like a rhino squeezed into a pair of high heels—trotting just a few paw prints behind. So tremendous this loss, so lost now your shadow.

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