The clever performance SPAfrica takes a closer look at white audiences’ empathy ★★★★☆
Annette Embrechts, 22 May 2023
Ntando Cele’s deceptively good performance as the socially committed white stage director and artist Julian Hetzel
Theatre director and visual artist Julian Hetzel has done it again. After 90 brain-shattering minutes at the SPRING Performing Arts Festival you find yourself back outside with a knot in your stomach and a headful of moral and artistic dilemmas – deceptively well packaged in the clever performance SPAfrica. A summary could never do it justice, and could give too much away.
First and foremost, all credit to the black South African performer Ntando Cele (trained at such places as Amsterdam’s DAS Theatre), who Hetzel has worked with on the SPAfrica project. Cele’s deceptively good stage performance as the socially committed white artist Hetzel avoids the expectations inevitably projected onto the black skin of a protesting performer from Durban. She then conducts a social experiment on bottled tears in a comical confrontation with the audience that refers to geopolitical conflicts about water as a scarce resource (water = the new oil) and everyone’s basic right to clean water. Cele asks a ‘volun-tear’ to cry into a specially developed tear-catching mask, giving the collectively gathered empathy a dangerously bitter aftertaste (tears for water, water for tears).
Her furious, dog-like growling finale shows how empathic responses from a white audience keep her in chains. Far from being liberating, identity politics on stage consolidates capitalist power structures, colonialism and exploitation of resources. Her ambiguous, sarcastic chant ‘Mine your trauma’ mocks the often opportunistic use of diversity as a criterion for awarding grants.
Such grandiose words and complex analyses all eventually fit into that single transparent bottle filled with our tears: liquid empathy, bottled under the trademark SPAfrica. Next thing you know, you fall into the trap of buying it afterwards, to assuage your guilt.
By Studio Julian Hetzel & Ntando Cele. 21 May, Theater Kikker (during the SPRING Performing Arts Festival), Utrecht. On tour in the Netherlands from 6 October 2023 to 16 February 2024.
About the author
Annette Embrechts has been a dance and theatre critic for the Dutch daily newspaper De Volkskrant since 1998. She writes about dance, performance, theatre and circus theatre.