Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune of attending many BASA events and others, including my own birthday, at Hollard’s Villa Arcadia. The house, which overlooks Johannesburg, is one of grace and grandeur, harking back to a long past South Africa. Owned and built by Lionel and Florence Phillips, it was the latter who also commissioned the Johannesburg Art Gallery, or JAG as it is more commonly known.
Myer Taub’s play Florence, which ran at the Market Theatre in August, was a total surprise and one that provided many threads of conversation among my colleagues in the creative sector. Beautifully performed by Leila Henriques, and directed by Greg Homann, we expected a linear story about the woman who was once referred to as the ‘Queen of Johannesburg’, surveying her kingdom from the house on the hill.
And yet the piece is far more complex and complicated – investigating the rifts and fissures that are Johannesburg, her colonial history and the role of the artist in the city. Henriques plays a variety of characters, in Brechtian style – she is Florence, she is the actress who plays Florence; she references the author, and even plays herself at one point. Through the conversation with the ‘missing’ author Taub, we are introduced to some of the debates that are colonialism, the arts, and the brute force of our city – past and present.
Design on all levels is critical for a production of this nature. While the set is challenging for the audience (the artist is fenced in at all times) it is the sound design and costume design that deserve kudos. Ntuthuko Mbuyazi has designed for Gregory Maqoma’s superb Cion, and in Florence, he masterfully created the constant backdrop of the city in 2018, the sound of an electric fence ticking, cars, distant music, dogs, sirens (perhaps the only thing I missed was a hadeda or two). The soundscape to Jozi acts as a metronome and counterpoint to the historical descriptions by Lady Florence, and her passion to build the Johannesburg Art Gallery. With the concept of fences, we are also reminded of the stories historically told by photographer and artist, Jo Ratcliffe and Terry Kurgan. Questions of who has access to art, who is the other, are all raised again in this production.
I mentioned the design – both the fence and the sound – but the costume design too is a wonderful evocation of the past. At one point, Florence puts on the frame of a bustle. Instead of wearing the full skirt, she simply wears the ‘bones’ of it – history stripped bare, emotions laid bare, an evocation of a body shape that belonged to Sara Baartman, but was ‘captured’ and worn by the colonials.
Actress, and director, Leila Henriques is a gift to the sector (her recent directorial work of the ensemble piece Hani: The Legacy was superb). Now she goes back to performance and she is once again riveting. Even as her one character (the actress) questions whether this is the time to tell this story of colonialism, we are reminded that yes, our country, is made up of many stories, and yes, these stories should be told. It is stories, as author Sisonke Msimang says, that are important in our search for identity and even, courage and bravery. Now is the perfect time for a play of this nature. As Msimang recently said at a talk I attended, we need to negotiate the tension between the world as we want it to be, and the world as it is, through a diversity of female voices; we need to tell our stories ‘from our scars and not our wounds’.
And so Florence asks what the role of the artist is? To lay bare his or her feelings, to be skewered on the very fences of societal beliefs? And yet, without the artist, we cannot, or perhaps just do not, open our minds to different perspectives. Florence, a multifaceted rendering of our history and our ‘scars’, naming those that are stripped from their podiums and from the history books. But in their wake, Johannesburg still has ‘Florence’s Gallery’, and an impressive collection of artworks that belong to all the city dwellers, not just those on the one side of the fence.