Actor standing on stage in a blue suit, pant legs rulled up, wearing a bow tie and leaning on a cane while holding a battered briefcase

‘Provocative and empathetic’: South African play about otherness set to make digital debut at UTM mini festival

Wednesday, April 14, 2021 - 10:52am
Chris Hampton

Red Peter has been asked to give a report to an academy. It is a proposition he finds most troubling. For Red Peter, you see, was born an ape. He was captured by a hunting expedition, crated up and shipped to Europe, when he realized the only way he would escape his cage was by learning to imitate the humans around him. Now, this is where the difficulty arises. Red Peter has done such a tremendous job acquiring the manners of people that he feels he cannot speak on his experience as an ape (as he’s been invited by the academy to do), because he no longer feels like an ape.   

Such is the plot of Czech-born writer Franz Kafka’s 1917 short story “A Report to an Academy.” Theatre-maker Phala Ookeditse Phala first encountered the text during his graduate studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. In the tale, he found a poignant allegory for the experience of otherness. Phala adapted the story as a solo stage performance and set his telling in post-apartheid South Africa. Since its première roughly 10 years ago, director Phala and actor Tony Miyambo, who plays Red Peter, have toured Kafka’s Ape around the world, garnering acclaim from critics and audiences everywhere.   

Actor on stage, hiding under a podium in low light
Photo by Oakland Winter Live Festival

Next week, the play will mark another achievement: its digital debut. On Tuesday, April 20, the Department of English and Drama at the University of Toronto Mississauga will present the first-ever virtual performance of Kafka’s Ape, live-streamed from the stage at the Centre for the Less Good Idea in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

UTM associate professor Lawrence Switzky has organized a two-day festival around the creative output of the two South African theatre artists, Phala and Miyambo, whose work he calls “provocative and empathetic.” Following the performance of Kafka’s Ape is a roundtable discussion, including Kafka expert John Noyes (professor of German, U of T), environmental scientist Monika Havelka (associate professor of Geography, Geomatics, and Environment, UTM), UTM Centre for New Theatre playwright-in-residence Matthew MacKenzie and PhD student Rohan Kulkarni (Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies, UTSG) who studies intercultural drama. On Wednesday, Phala and Miyambo will give a performative lecture about the role of the artist within the university setting, before they lead a workshop on acting with objects, props and puppets. (Read the full list of events here.) The programming arises from a multi-year partnership between the University of Toronto and the University of the Western Cape, near Cape Town, through which Switzky has been studying the work of South African theatre organizations.

“As we’re ending the school year of 2021,” Switzky says, “I thought it would be nice to move outside the tiny boxes of Zoom to consider what’s going on on other continents. It felt like an opportunity to open after a period of closing down.”

Switzky says he couldn’t conceive of more urgent or “life-enhancing” work to talk about right now. “These are productions about the most pressing issues imaginable: how we relate to each other and our environment and how we deal with a troubling — and still present — legacy of race.”

Because Kafka’s Ape raises complex questions around identity and how we locate it, Miyambo says “it’s a play that absorbs context wherever it goes.” This is perhaps why it lands with audiences across the globe: it is about how we perceive and treat difference, which is a very human experience. “It’s a show,” Miyambo says, “that’s constantly trying to reach out and connect.” 

When the strength and weakness of our connections has been something of a theme this past year, this virtual production and mini festival around Kafka’s Ape is itself an exercise in enlarging our worlds — from the UTM community to Johannesburg and to whomever else may tune in. 

“The beauty about this time and now,” Phala says, “is that as much as we’d have liked to be in Toronto, it’s also quite a beautiful thing we’re able to share — in one way or another — across the oceans. The piece speaks about otherness and understanding other people. Not homogeneity, but a kind of connectivity … I can’t wait to connect in this moment of disconnect.”