Bridging the culture gap: Book Wings 2015 finds release in South Africa

Bookwings 2015
IWP Director Christopher Merrill introduces Book Wings 2015. — photo by Kathleen Maris

On Tuesday, March 10, Iowa City became the shared stage for an international, multimedia experience for the fourth year in a row. Book Wings is a collaboration that began with the University of Iowa Theatre Department, UI International Writing Program and the Moscow Art Theatre. For several months, artists from UI and a university in another country collaborate on staging short plays by playwrights from both countries. On the performance day, actors present the pieces before both a live audience and webcam that broadcasts the festival around the world.

This year, Book Wings partnered with the theatre department at the University of Cape Town. IWP Director Christopher Merrill explained that they wanted to work with South African artists in 2015 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. The playwrights wrote pieces inspired by the theme of “release.”

Bookwings 2015
Live streaming presents its challenges, but the international payoff is well warranted. — photo by Kathleen Maris

The first play, Waiting for Marcel, was written by Iowa Playwrights Workshop alumnus Peter Ullian and performed in Cape Town. This humorous play was inspired by playwright Samuel Beckett’s time serving in the French resistance movement in World War II. On a stage with a Waiting For Godot-inspired set, Beckett and his fiancée Suzanne flee to safety and contemplate the fate of a lone leaf on a tree. While the sound came in clear, the picture was slightly choppy and lead to a discrepancy in laughter between the two audiences. Though Ullian was not present to watch the play live, he viewed the performance on a livestream and used Twitter to express his enjoyment.

The action moved to Theatre B in the UI Theatre Building for the second play, Sicawa Street by Katori Hall. The story focuses on a black South African family dealing with mixed feelings over the country’s first democratic election in 1994, when Mandela was elected president.

Bookwings 2015
Sicawa Street by Katori Hall — photo by Kathleen Maris

Actress Tisch Jones later told the audience about how this play in particular conveyed universal concerns about the difficulties in voting access for marginalized populations. Though the action took place on a specific day in South African history, one could not help but think about the 50th anniversary of the Selma march on the previous Saturday and President Obama’s call to restore provisions in the Voting Rights Act.

One South African audience member noticed that death was a major part of all six plays performed that day. This was especially prominent in the one-two punch of the third and fourth plays. In Mike van Graan’s What We Wish For, two parents disagree on how to proceed after their son is left with profound physical and mental disabilities after a car accident. In a similar vein, UI alumnus Keith Josef Adkins’ The Disappointment is about a family dealing with a son’s physical and mental decline after a lifetime of substance abuse. Director Eric Forsythe commented that taken collectively, the plays present a certain “grimness, as if death needs to happen before transcendence.”

Bookwings 2015
The Disappointment by Keith Josef Adkins — photo by Kathleen Maris

The final two plays had the most abstract literary and staging styles. Mandla Mbothwe’s Invisible Eden is a lyrical work in which a mother and son process pain. Wessel Pretorius’ Blood Pastoral uses three actors to portray a homecoming on a South African farm. The white farmer’s son wants to visit the farm as a free man after coming out as gay, while the black foreman’s daughter comes back in the wake of his death. This was one of the best plays in the festival, using a mixture of contemplative poetry and humor to explore the personal and racial dynamics in one extended family.

In the post-performance talkback, the actors had the opportunity to describe their process of incorporating the theme of “release” into their performances. South African actor Cleo Raatus, who portrayed the father in What We Wish For, explained that his character experienced release throughout the play. “I would have to let go of the previous state,” said Raatus. “I had to let go, and approach, let go, and approach.”

Actress Donna Cormack-Thomson, who played Suzanne in Waiting for Marcel, focused on her character’s fear as she as she reaches her goal of escaping from the Nazis. “There’s a large portion of risk involved with actually letting go,” said Cormack-Thomson.

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The International Writing Project is still looking into the possibilities of livestreaming technology. Merrill hopes that they can work towards the goal of Iowa City actors performing one piece simultaneously with their foreign counterparts. With the growing affordability of software and creativity of social media, the opportunities are ready to take flight. In the meantime, those who were not able to attend the performance can read the program and all six play scripts at the International Writing Program’s website. The full video of the performance will be on YouTube next week.

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