The performance reflects on the nature of bullying in all its forms and shows that more support is needed for mental health in marginalised communities.
Kokon made its debut at Suidoosterfees in early May. It is the latest offering from acclaimed young playwright and director Carlo Daniels. The play takes its name from the Afrikaans word meaning ‘cocoon’ and is set in the Cape Flats. It centres around Josh, a high school student who bravely opens a dialogue about his sexual identity, mental health, and abuse. The production embraces physical theatre techniques to demonstrate various themes while powerfully conveying the consequences of violence. The cast includes Beviol Swartz, Darion Adams, Ayden Croy, Shannon Williams, and Zinedine Manus.
The production was held at The Artscape Theatre Centre, home of the Suidoosterfees, and is one of the selected few emerging from NATi Jong Sterre/Young Stars Project for upcoming playwrights, supported by The Jakes Gerwel foundation. These playwrights were part of the 2020 mentoring programme under the guidance of Abduragman Adams. The Suidoosterfees presented a more compact and intimate festival than usual following the South African pandemic regulations that allowed for limited seating.
Daniels was inspired to write this play after a conversation with one of his peers, in an effort to create and collaborate during the global pandemic. The conversation veered towards bullying, and the two eventually found themselves unpacking their mental health journeys and the state of mental wellness in marginalised communities. After some time, Daniels felt compelled to create something impactful that explores and generates awareness about these topics.
‘The title, Kokon, was presented unexpectedly within the text when a character uses a cocoon as a metaphor to describe their existence,’ says Daniels speaking to Creative Feel. He started working on the play in Paulet Huis in Somerset East and focused on writing stories emanating from his own life experiences. He shared his frustration with corruption and the lack of transparency from government institutions regarding funding opportunities and grants. Bullying, in various forms, has become a much bigger problem in South Africa that exists and operates on all levels. People are forced to endure toxic behaviour daily, and it is troubling to think about what victims have to face endlessly.
‘There are many challenges for theatre-makers. Corruption has a huge effect on the livelihood of theatre-makers. It smothers the creativity and sustainability of our artists. The funds are there but often disappear before ever reaching the artists,’ says Daniels. ‘I hope Kokon sparks a conversation to get victims of gender-based violence and mental anguish to a safer space. Bullying starts somewhere, and it’s for us as a society to uncover the root of the problem. I can’t do it alone. I need a society, a collective decision.’
I attended their final dress and technical rehearsal, saw the performance twice, and interacted with the cast and crew. It wasn’t long before the work sparked conversations about our own lived experiences. Much like Daniels, I understand the importance of shedding light on our human rights and marginalised states of being. Moments in the performance took me back to when I was a boy, unsure of my own identity, ridiculed by an ignorant society unaware of the impact of toxic interactions and encounters. Learning about the assault and murder of Lonwabo Jack, Kirvan Fortuin, Adnan Adams, and countless other queer bodies makes one wish that living as a marginalised queer person of colour was easier.
From the left; Darion Adams, Shannon Williams, Zinedine Manus, Ayden Croy, and Beviol Swartz in Kokon at Suidoosterfees PHOTO Jeremeo le Cordeur
‘The project was a sensitive one with many challenges. I was fearful at first, given its sensitive nature. However, I wrote this story from an honest place with pure intentions. I couldn’t quiet myself when I clearly had something boiling inside,’ shares Daniels.
The pandemic has hit artists in the entertainment industry extraordinarily hard. What adds to the increasing amount of tension is the ever-changing nature of the freelance environment in which they are trying to make a living. The tragic suicide of celebrated actor Ceagan Arendse shocked the country. No one in the film, TV, and media industry saw it coming. This reiterates why we should all talk about mental health. Pandemic fatigue is a reality, and it is important to know what to look out for and how to save yourself and your loved ones from the abyss.
Darion Adams and Zinedine Manus in the closing movement piece PHOTO Jeremeo le Cordeur
Daniels’ goal with Kokon is to ‘spread awareness among our youth – schools, organisations, groups – and to engage in stories that will have an impact on their growth and show different ways of finding healing and breaking the silence.’ Giving voice to the silenced may save a life. Arendse’s passing and the work presented by Daniels empowered me to face and accept that I’m not alone in the fight against depression and anxiety: to acknowledge that it’s difficult to muster up the strength to carry these feelings daily and to appreciate artists for their resilience in finding ways to keep creating, empowering, and surviving.