Theatres collaborate across countries and cultures for Book Wings South Africa

American playwright David Kranes responds to a question during the talk back following Book Wings Iraq. -- photo by Susannah Shive
American playwright David Kranes (second from the left) responds to questions during a previous Book Wings event held in March 2014. — photo by Susannah Shive

On March 10, 2015, across 8,500 miles and two oceans, theaters in Iowa City and Cape Town will host a special cross-cultural theater collaboration with the premier of Book Wings South Africa. The event leverages the latest digital technologies to connect playwrights, actors, translators, directors and audiences across the globe in a single interactive production.

Book Wings, a cross-cultural, collaborative theatre-based program run through the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, partners this year with the University of Cape Town, African Arts Institute and Artscape Theatre Centre to explore the theme of “Release” — a subject commemorative of the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

The announcement of this year’s playwrights reveals seasoned contributing artists from both countries. Mike van Graan, director of the Pan-African Arterial Network, which supports artistic endeavors across over 40 countries, says American audiences can expect to enjoy “a diverse combination of traditional and contemporary viewpoints” through the South African contributions.

Van Graan joins Mandla Mbothwe and Wessel Pretorius as one of the three contributing artists. Mandla, recognized for his traditional style and for invoking the use of African languages, is creating an English language piece specific for the occasion. Both van Graan and Wessel’s works embody more contemporary viewpoints. Wessel’s Blood Pastoral will be performed on the University of Iowa stage.

The American playwrights commissioned include Keith Josef Adkins, Katori Hall and Peter Ullian. Both Adkins and Ullian are graduates of the University of Iowa Playwright Workshop and all bring award-winning talent to the table with a venerable list of acclaimed and award-winning releases on and Off-Broadway.

Adkins, whose work often explores perspectives on African American life, has approached the topic of release through a personal lens in The Disappointments. The play is inspired by his own brother’s struggle with substance abuse and incarceration.

“He passed away three years ago, substance free,” he said. “For me, this is a way of having a conversation about my anxieties, arrogances, humility and sense of compassion.”

Adkins also shares in the hope of exchanging perspective with his South African counterparts.

“It excites me to be able to share this story and that people on the other side of the world could see similarities of the complexity of black life,” he said.

Both Ullian and Hall also come from a tradition of being vocal about challenging issues. Ullian is a two-time recipient of a Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Musical Theater Award and received acclaim for his unlikely portrayal of artistic life within concentration camps in Signs of Life: A Tale of Terezin. Hall’s 2009 play, The Mountaintop, granted her an Oliver Award for its portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. and released to full Broadway production.

The theatre collaboration’s theme of commemorating of Nelson Mandela’s struggle comes at a unique time in America’s own historical plight with race relations. “When we came up with the idea, Ferguson didn’t exist, and the death of Eric Garner hadn’t happened,” said Chris Merrill, Director of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. “Since the commissioning of the plays, it’s interesting that we as Americans have been reminded that our own story is not over.”

Through the plays and a subsequent talk-back hour where audience members share perspectives and feedback, Book Wings will provide the opportunity to have both the artistic and issue-laden conversations. But challenging discussions aren’t something the program shies away from; in fact, it was created out of them.

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Book Wings is the result of a Presidential Bilateral commission from the Russian and American governments in an effort to move past cold war mentalities. Then-President Dmitry Medvedev and President Barack Obama signed the commission. Since then, Book Wings has completed a three-year collaborative series with the Moscow Art Theatre. Previous partners include the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre and the University of Baghdad.

“Theater is all about the creation of community,” said Merrill. “The community that we are building is on-stage here, in Cape Town and at all of the watch parties online.”

This year’s production will be a special chapter in a growing story of cultural diplomacy.

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