Dinner Talk (1996)

Post 1994, many people asked the question, “What will you write about now that apartheid has gone?” I wrote Dinner Talk, a trilogy of two-handers each dealing with a completely different contemporary South African theme, to show that, in fact, there was a great deal more to explore in the emerging democratic era than in the ‘us-them’ apartheid past.  The title alludes to the kinds of themes that people spoke about at dinner time as an indication of contemporary concerns that could form the basis of contemporary South African drama.

While the play as a whole was called Dinner Talk, each playlet had its own title: Happily Ever After, Sisters and Thabo for Thabo. 

Happily Ever After is about two former cultural workers who were good friends in the anti-apartheid era, one of whom – Bongi – becomes a senior civil servant in the new, post-apartheid Department of Arts and Culture while the other, Tony, continues to be a writer who applies his critical pen to the new regime just as he did to the National Party government.  Tony invites Bongi to be the guest speaker at the launch of his new book, but Bongi doesn’t pitch and it later transpires that it is because the Department (responsible for promoting freedom of creative expression) doesn't think that it is appropriate for a senior civil servant to be associated with a book that is critical of the new government.  The playlet explores how an activist takes up a senior position in government and loses his zeal for the principles he once fought for.

Sisters features the characters Raj and Sue who meet in a restaurant in a city other than their own.  They have a one-night stand, and afterwards discover that they happen to be in town for the same reason: to attend a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing that will reveal the truth about who planted the bomb in the shopping mall that killed Sue’s sister more than a decade before.  The theme explored in this piece is whether truth necessarily leads to reconciliation or could truth actually result in alienation rather than reconciliation.

Thabo for Thabo uses the same actors in the first part of the trilogy, but in a completely different piece about violent crime in South Africa.  Vusi is a lawyer visiting his lawyer friend Steve, in the same cell where they met twelve years before.  Then, Vusi was a detainee being brutally tortured and Steve was there to get him out of detention.  Now, the roles are reversed.  Steve has been a victim of a terrible violent crime and he has acted in revenge.  Vusi is there to try to get him out bail after he has been arrested.  The playlet juxtaposes the violence of apartheid against the violence of crime, and the respective responses of individuals who experience that violence.

History

After its premiere at the National Arts Festival in July 2006, the script was substantially developed and was next staged at the Playhouse in Durban in October 1997, heralding the start of a national tour.

This trilogy – or parts of it – also had staged readings in Rotterdam (1999) as part of a cultural focus on South AFrica, and at the Young Vic in London (2002) as part of a season of readings of new South African work.

Dinner Talk was my first, fully professional play i.e. acted by professional actors, with a professional director, and performed in mainstream, professional theatre venues around the country.

Production Details

First production - Fringe, Standard Bank National Arts Festival, July 1996
Director – Jay Pather

Casts

  • 1996 - Bheki Mkhwane as Bongi and Vusi, Ashley Dowds as Tony and Steve; Robin Singh as Raj and Ashleigh Tobias as Sue
  • 1997 - Mzwandile Kamang as Bongi and Vusi; Ashley Dowds as Tony and Steve; Robin Singh as Raj and Ashleigh Tobias as Sue.
  • 1998 - Lindelani Buthelezi as Bongi and Vusi; Dan Roberttse as Tony and Steve; Strini Pillay as Raj and Ashleigh Tobias as Sue.

Seasons

  • Standard Bank National Arts Festival July 1996
  • The Playhouse Company, Durban 3-26 October 1997
  • PACOFS 5-11 December 1997
  • Johannesburg Civic Theatre 16 Jan-14 Feb 1998
  • CAPAB Nico Malan Theatre 24 Feb-21March 1998
  • Western Cape Schools Festival 13 March 1998
  • Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees April, 1998

What the Critics Said

After the premiere at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown

“A number of dramatists…offered convincing proof that theatre in the post-apartheid era is flourishing.  Mike van Graan…used a trilogy of small plays to grapple with today’s themes in Dinner Talk….”

- Elliot Makhaya, Entertainment Editor, Sowetan, 27 Dec 1996

“…there are occasional loose cannons who believe that the ABC of South African cultural experience doesn’t begin with apartheid and end with new South African angst, nostalgia and creative paralysis.  Thankfully, Mike van Graan, fringe playwright, cultural commissar and accomplished devil’s advocate is one of them….(in) Dinner Talk…witty and insightful in some places, unashamedly raw and clichéd in others, Van Graan manages to get embarrassingly close…to the contradictory skins of the post-apartheid animal.”

- Hazel Friedman, Cue 11 July 1996 and Mail and Guardian, July 1996

At the Playhouse season in Durban, October 1997

“Essential and compulsive viewing for all South Africans….Watching Dinner Talk will be almost like a release for many South Africans, brought up on a diet of deceit, guilt and misinformation.  It is both candid and shocking, funny and insightful and contains just about every element necessary for riveting and absorbing theatre….Dinner Talk is a triumph for Van Graan…a truly superb offering of indigenous theatre.”

- Michael Tarr, Daily News Tonight, 13 October 1997

“…an engrossing trilogy, dishing up good dollops of food for thought with tasty side servings of humour, emotion, irony, provocation and catharsis…a rewarding piece of theatre which…flies straight into the face of the trendy notion that local drama is dead.”

- Billy Suter, The Mercury, 10 October 1997

During the Johannesburg run at the Johannesburg Civic Centre, January 1998

“What a joy it is, in these days when necessity decrees a surfeit of experimenting (and) workshopping…to see again an indigenous work that is not only skilfully crafted but can also lay some claim to literacy…these three short two-handers by Mike van Graan exploring emotions and attitudes in post-apartheid South Africa, can be enjoyed as much for the cunning way in which they are structured – and for the excellence of the performances – as for the fascination inherent in their content and surprise developments.”

- Raeford Daniel, The Citizen 22 January 1988

“Dinner Talk…comprises images of confusion in the wake of momentous political transformation.  It depicts formerly clear roles that are now shattered and chaotic, and uncomfortable miracles….Van Graan’s vision is neither bleak nor optimistic.  It’s realistic and it captures emotional complexities…it is tempting to wish that he would abandon cultural politics for the stage.  But in the long run, I suspect, both would be the losers: the achievements of the two are inseparable.”

- Robert Greig, Sunday Independent, 24 January 1998

“Dinner Talk  is) gripping and entertaining theatre which deals with life as we are living it now in all its complexities and uncertainties.  And what the playwright has achieved best is maintaining a delicate balance between the light and darkness of the lives he throws in to sharp focus.”

- Diane de Beer, Pretoria News, 22 January 1998

“The Civic Theatre’s smaller stage was filled with emotion and power during the opening night of Dinner Talk….Mike van Graan…has not only successfully recreated the art of great storytelling, he has accomplished much by weaving three mesmerizing stories in the three playlets performed during the evening.  His work slaps you hard in the face, it is so bang-up-to-date…This hard-hitting, thought-provoking, modern theatre, covers topics which affect us all.”

- Eddie Mokoena, Sowetan, 23 January 1998

During its Cape Town run

“What sets Dinner Talk apart from other comments on South African society is its honesty, sophistication in concept and an intelligent script.”

- Kobus Oosthuizen, The Argus Tonight, 26 February 1998

“…it’s seldom that the politically-correct post-election generation speaks its mind in public.  Not only is it not considered supportive of our so-called rainbow ideology, but it is often actively discouraged by those who find any criticism of our fledgling democracy a threat.  Apartheid’s archetypal Big Brother may have been beaten at the polls, but a new breed of thought-meisters have been quick to move behind the monitors and, masquerading as progressives, their tactics are the more scary.  It’s reassuring then to see that playwright Mike van Graan, himself an experienced struggle veteran/cultural worker, has the courage to open up certain political Pandora’s boxes, and the creativity to do it with flair….Offering the opportunity to (nervously) laugh at our contemporary foibles, it’s theatre-as-catharsis, but more than that, it’s entertaining.”

- Karen Rutter, Cape Times, 26 February 1998

“Veral opvallend is Van Graan se talent vir prikkelende dialoog.  Hy skryf soos iemand wat waarlik bevry is, nie net van kolonialsme en apartheid nie maar ook van reenboognasie lidmaatskap.  Dit sorg vir intellektueel stimulerende material, waarin hedendaagse kwessies uit verfrissende hoeke bekyk word…Dis teater op sy beste.  Selfs vermaaklik, al kom dit na genoeg aan die been om te kan skaaf.”

- Gabriel Botma, Die Burger, 26 Februarie 1998

(Especially remarkable is Van Graan’s talent for sharp dialogue.  He writes as someone who is truly free, not just from colonialism and apartheid but also from membership of the rainbow nation.  This makes for intellectually stimulating material where contemporary questions are explored from refreshing angles.  This is theatre at its best.  Even entertaining, even if it is close to the bone.)

Awards/recognition

  • Fleur du Cap Award for Best New Script, 1998.
  • Dinner Talk was one of four new South African plays staged as readings at the Young Vic in London from 27 February-13 March 2002.  The reading was directed by Charles Fourie.
  • Thabo for Thabo, the third part of the trilogy, is included in a celebration of Nadine Gordimer, A Writing Life: Celebrating Nadine Gordimer, edited by Andries Oliphant.
  • In 1998, two Michaelhouse students – William Le Cordeur and Ndoyisile Mtongana, under direction of their teacher, Angus Douglas – performed Thabo for Thabo and toured it to various schools in Pietermaritzburg.  Their final performance was at a convention of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers in Durban in October of that year, attended also by Dullah Omar, Minister of Justice.
  • Thabo for Thabo has now been extended into a full-length play, Some Mothers’ Sons (see below).  This came about as the result of Thabo for Thabo being staged as a reading in Rotterdam in 1999, after which the actors requested that the playlet be developed into a full-length piece.  Six years later, Van Graan did this and entered it into the NLDTF/PANSA Festival of Reading of New Writing in 2005

Availability of script and visual recording

The script is available in unpublished form from the writer.  There is no visual recording available. Please contact info@mikevangraan.co.za for more information.

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