“Hillbrowfication”, Constanza Macras | DorkyPark ©John Hobb

High on Entertainment, Low on Criticality.

“Hillbrowfication”, by DorkyPark’s Constanza Macras and performed at the Maxim Gorki Theater, is a colourful of explosion of choral beauty that leaves the audience uplifted by optimistic energy, yet leaves behind unanswered questions, and, at least for myself, an array of mixed emotions.

During the development of this performance, Constanza Macras worked with the Outreach Foundation Hillbrow Theatre Project, a community theatre programme in Hillbrow, an inner city suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. During apartheid, the area was known as a fashionable gay neighbourhood. Today, it is home to a large (im)migrant community facing ongoing xenophobia, and well-known for its high levels of crime, prostitution, and unemployment. More recently, the suburb has been of interest to developers investing in its ‘restoration’ – bringing with it all the complexities that gentrification entails. “Hillbrowfication”, which premiered in June 2018, struck me as both a response to, and a re-imagining of this part of Johannesburg and the varying mythologies it holds in South African imaginations.

Before I continue, it is worth pointing out that I am a white South African, and so cannot help but receive this work through a particular lens. Ever since I was very young, I have understood that I am white. In a country that, for the past 500 years or so, has been designed and run by a racialised mechanism, which was violently introduced by the European imagination, this is something that just happens. I have always been aware (subconsciously at first, and then later, more consciously) of my whiteness in relation to blackness. I know how deep my racist gaze goes, and have learnt that racism forms a huge part of my cultural heritage and resides within my body. This particular perspective will then contribute to the fact that I felt a constant thread of discomfort throughout the show, even though it was a beautiful performance. The language of the programme leads me to believe that Constanza Macras, born in Buenos Aires and living in Europe since the early 1990s, would like to align her work within a decolonial discourse. But I have serious doubts as to whether the performance succeeds in undermining the white gaze and colonial ways of seeing.

The show begins with a young, black woman standing right at the back of the imposing, yet somehow, cosy stage. She describes a New Order – a different world – into the microphone she is holding. The language is poetic, but her style of speaking is more reminiscent of a newsreader. She stops speaking, and a dancer enters, moving across the space with a kind of robotic, pop-locking style, and is then followed by two more dancers. They’re dressed in brightly coloured tights and vests, their bodies plastered with a cacophony of vivid patterns. They move to an intriguing soundtrack composed from an avante-garde sounding collection of shrieks and yells. This shrieking choir, which does not sound like a recording – perhaps it is being performed live back-stage? – fades, and the stage gradually fills with 20 young, black and brown performers. Later, I learn on the DorkyPark website that they are all from Hillbrow. Their ages appear to range from between around six years old to the mid or late twenties. They are dressed in extravagant and colourful costumes, and move in a circular motion. Their energy is palpable. Large group scenes echo the bustle of the city. Anecdotes fly, and a microphone is passed from performer to performer. For the next hour and a half, the enormous cast sing, dance, act, and play instruments in an ever-rotating swirl as they thread stories and situations together.

I wonder who the actual authors of these stories are, as this is not made clear in the work. The stories speak collectively – but also quite ambiguously – to some of the issues facing Hillbrow, and South Africa at large. Topics including xenophobia, colonisation, and apartheid emerge, yet they are diluted through humour and with metaphors that don’t quite seem to add up. For example, in a story about an outer space invasion, aliens enforce a new societal order based on a person’s ability to dance. Those who cannot dance are killed. I sit and try to figure out if this story is highlighting and problematising the trope that “all Africans can dance”, or confirming it. It’s not the strongest metaphor for colonisation, but it does introduce the opportunity for more dancing. The performers display the power and grandeur of Pantsula with a quick performance of this dynamic dance that developed in black townships in South Africa during apartheid, and then follow it up with a little jab at contemporary dancers who walk in straight angles around a room. This makes the audience laugh – me included – but in this moment, we are certainly not pondering Europe’s colonial history, nor the devastating effects it has had and continues to have on so many people.

The focus of “Hillbrowfication” is on the future, and the overwhelming message is one of optimism, joy, hope, and triumph. I can appreciate this, and more than once, I get goose bumps during a particularly uplifting group song. It’s all very moving – but what, exactly, is it moving me towards? I can’t escape the feeling that these bright and busy images are simply reaffirming the dangerous neural pathways that I already have – that all white people have – towards Africa and black bodies. Trigger words such as ‘high-energy’, ‘raw’, ‘talent’, ‘powerful’, and ‘expressive’ all float to mind. Hidden within this language lies the vast and complex white imagination, which constantly re-invents the black ‘other’. And, I realise, it feels all the more dangerous because it is being presented under the guise of decolonial discourse and black empowerment.

As the piece draws into its final quarter hour, the stories that have been floating in and out of the constant motion in the room come to an end. In its place, we are offered an incredibly extended scene of faux-fighting. The performers take over the stage with a slow-motion battle – landing fake punches and launching counterfeit attacks – the point of which is lost on me entirely. The entertainment levels are high, I think to myself, but where are the criticality levels? And these young, black and brown dancing bodies still have not stopped moving. Even during the bow, as the majority white audience roars its appreciation, two young boys execute somersaults and flic-flacs as they run out to receive their bow. They do this every time they run out. Have they been encouraged to do this? By whom? Are they not exhausted?

Am I just being a neurotic, guilt-ridden, white South African in this moment, critical and uncomfortable at how a white audience is receiving a performance by black children and young people? Is it me that’s the problem? Does it really matter that the director, choreographer, dramaturg, and costume designer are all white? Honestly, Nicola, why are you so obsessed with the colour of someone’s skin? (Hint: re-read the second paragraph for the answer.)

I was not in the audience when this work premiered at the Hillbrow Theatre in Johannesburg, where, I imagine, friends and family of the performers, as well as Hillbrow locals, would have made up much of the audience. Black Africans make up 98 % of Hillbrow’s population. In that context, and with a majority black and brown local audience, would this piece have functioned as a celebratory community event? But what is lost and what then emerges in its place when such a piece is brought to Europe? From one review that I’ve read[1], I understand that the piece was created as an ‘empowerment project’. Yet even putting aside the problematic white saviour tropes of Macras coming from Europe to South Africa to “empower” a community, or the fact that she may well have worked responsibly and ethically in her creation process, there’s still a big jump between running a community-based workshop with the intention of empowering and affirming a group of young people, to producing and presenting an economically viable theatre production performed to white audiences within the context of a large commercial theatre in the capital city of Europe’s most powerful nation. If the latter is going to be the result of such an ‘empowerment project’, surely notions of race and Africa need to be more thoroughly and carefully interrogated in the actual performance in order to challenge the white gaze? In “Critique of Black Reason” (2017), Achille Mbembe writes: ‘Race is at the centre of this tragedy. To a large extent, race is an iconic currency. It appears at the edges of a commerce – of the gaze.’ Has the gaze, of both director and audience, been acknowledged or challenged in this performance?

I find myself conflicted. I don’t want these criticisms to undermine the incredible amounts of work and time that the performers have put into their performance – or their skill in delivering it. But I can’t use this as my reason to overlook the fact that the intricacies of racial politics have been overlooked within the piece. I believe that exquisitely made group scenes, emotively-charged songs, and programmes that name-drop ‘Pan-Africanism’ and ‘Afro-Futurism’ just aren’t good enough anymore. The work to dismantle racist and colonial structures is demanding in the extreme and extravagantly complicated, but it needs to be done. If nothing is dismantled, if audiences leave feeling warm, uplifted, and impressed simply by the skill of the performers, then this work remains undone.

In a later chapter, Mbembe writes: ‘When Africa comes up, correspondence between words, images and the thing itself matters very little. It is not necessary for the name to correspond to the thing, or for the thing to correspond to the name. […] In other words, to say “Africa” always consists in constructing figures and legends – it matters little which ones – on top of an emptiness.’ This sums up eloquently how I feel about “Hillbrowfication”. Even though it is an entrancing vision of triumph, a loud and busy chorus singing: “We will overcome”, and an uplifting praise-song to Hillbrow, it is all filtered through a dangerous white lens. And it is ultimately empty for it.

[1] https://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/hillbrowfication-im-gorki-wer-nicht-tanzt-hat-schon-verloren/22636346.html (2nd June 2018, in German only)