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Author: Ian Steadman
Title: Sizwe Bansi is Dead in the Virginia Correctional Center for Women
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Sizwe Bansi is Dead in the Virginia Correctional Center for Women
Ian Steadman

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 2, pp. 3, 1991

Sizwe Bansi is Dead in the Virginia Correctional Center for Women


At the end of April this year, I was preparing to leave Harrisonburg, Virginia, after a sojourn as a Visiting Professor of Theatre Studies at James Madison University. A letter arrived in the mail. Stamped on the reverse of the plain white envelope was what looked like a rather polite notice. It read:


I considered the intertextual implications for more than a few seconds before opening the envelope. Whatever text was secreted within had already been overdetermined by the official stamp without.

I gazed again at the official message. The assurance given to the reader that the text within had not been inspected was, after all, considerate. The writer of the letter had probably been extended this courtesy because she had written on the front of the sealed envelope the words "Educational Mail" and, by means of her identity number, had clearly identified herself and the person to whom she was writing. The letter read as follows:

Dear Mr. Steadman,

Thank you so much for bringing Sizwe Bansi is Dead to V.C.C.W. The play is wonderful! The emotion it delivered impacted upon me beyond word, I laughed, became enraged and rallied to my brother's side all within 90 minutes.

It truly displayed the reality of apartheid, of segregation, of race, creed, sexual, and religious prejudices. It clearly defined those prejudices as fear and hatred and lack of understanding for differences in all of us which does so much good for our world.

The actors were great! They afforded me a chance to examine my own values and gave me hope that we can overcome suspicion, race/culture superiority and all forms of hatred—our world depends on it! Their use of language was fantastic. I could envision myself in the factory with Styles, and felt the fear of finding Robert's body in that alley! I found myself participating in purposely remembering Robert's number, and anticipating and hoping Sizwe's acceptance of Robert's identity, even though I fully understood his apprehension at accepting it; after all the only thing he has as a black man that is his own is his values and his identity.

I will always remember one thing from this play: What it means to be a man (woman). Thank you for allowing me this experience and please come back.

Sincerely yours ...

On 26 April, I had taken my student production of Sizwe Bansi is Dead to the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland, some 250 kilometers southwest of Washington D.C. The prison is home to women who have committed a range of offences ranging from murder to embezzlement, and who are offered, as part of their weekly routine, some exposure to the uses of drama in education. We had been invited to present a performance and engage in discussion with the inmates, after their drama teacher had seen the production on the campus of James Madison University, where I had directed it as part of my engagement with the Department of Theatre and Dance.

The context of performance in the prison determined quite fresh nuances in the play. We had enjoyed considerable success in our University season, and the production had generated much discussion in a community passionately interested in the issue of South African sanctions. Nothing prepared us for the performance at Goochland.

The actors and director were subjected to some ribald teasing as we unpacked the van and set up in the prison assembly area: the male guard took malicious pleasure in informing us that "his" girls had not seen many males within the confines of the prison. The youthful good looks of the actors ensured that the first minute of each of their entrances provoked voluble teasing and laughter with much sexual innuendo. Thereafter, the passionate intensity of the audience's concentration—for many of them this was the first play they had ever seen—resulted in pockets of total silence interspersed with more than a dozen spontaneous rounds of applause and a standing ovation. The discussion after the performance provided opportunities for the audience to express their own subjective responses to the experience of the performance. Most interesting for the company was the frequently expressed analogy between the predicament of Sizwe Bansi and the inmates themselves. The play, most felt, was about African identity; but all of the African-American women who joined the discussion expressed this proposition. For they saw themselves as part of the African diaspora, and asserted a strong identification as African women. Furthermore, they challenged the male view of oppression in the play, and asked us about the silences in the play regarding women in South African society in general, and about the representation of specific South African women in particular.

For we who had grappled with a key South African dramatic text, this had a major impact on our thinking about the play. Not only did it provide a challenge to the way we conceived of Africa and Africans; it also made us interrogate the ways in which anti-apartheid "resistance" theatre, in challenging discrimination, enjoys a complicit relationship with other forms and institutions and structures of oppression.

No resistance culture—however much it opposes the status quo—is entirely "free". It must be viewed within the context of power relations. The fight for freedom always occurs within a space defined for it by the very powers that frustrate freedom. The dominant cultural discourse in South Africa appropriates free spaces of sub-cultural or counter-cultural forms as soon as such free spaces become apparent. Thus, the once adversarial anti-apartheid playwright Gibson Kente was appropriated when his work was produced by State Television at the height of apartheid repression, and many South African playwrights defined their work less in terms of local audience expectations than in terms of exigencies of the international festival circuit. Besides, if freedom lies within determined spaces, there is always a complicit relationship between the dominant discourse and the discourse which opposes it. For this reason, oppositional resistance activity is frequently stunted by the very thing it attacks. The so-called resistance theatre of our time is tainted by sexism, machismo, racism, and discrimination in a variety of forms; all of these elements are part of apartheid culture. For example, the play Asinamali! by Mbongeni Ngema has been marketed as an entertaining critique of South Africa's discriminatory social structure, yet it displays an unashamed attitude towards women as sexual objects and depicts them in a highly stereotypical fashion, demonstrating how resistance discourse can reinforce aspects of the dominant discourse while purporting to attack it.

For the Goochland audience, the most interesting character of the play was Sizwe's wife, who never appears in the play, but about whom we hear a great deal. The silent strength of the oppressed black women of South Africa was, for one inmate, the very fabric of the play. Why, then, was her voice silenced in this representation of oppression in South Africa? Did liberation mean liberation of males alone? Must women wait for apartheid's demise before they were given a voice?

From the Department of Corrections in Goochland, Virginia, then, a group comprising academics and students who had brainstormed race, oppression and discrimination in South Africa, received a number of corrective texts. The role and function of African performance in the African diaspora is partly to re-present Africa. In addition, when the forms and practices of African representation settle into tried and tested formulae, performance in new contexts can contest them and, where necessary, correct them.

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