Ashraf Johaardien. Picture: Angelo Kalmeyr
South Africa’s long-standing theatre tradition of creating new work that disrupts, challenges and questions is alive and well. Over the centuries, decades and years, theatre and other arts genres have been used over and over again, in a multitude of ways, as a vehicle to challenge and provoke.

Disruption is also the core theme of this year’s National Arts Festival, which begins today in Grahamstown.

Ashraf Johaardien, veteran performer and artist at the festival since 1993, wears a different hat this year as he takes up the position of executive producer. He says this is the first year that sees the festival team calling a special theme, rather than a theme resulting from the culmination of content.

“Art and creativity can sometimes be disruptive. Already there are elements in society that can be considered disruptive - such as Uber taxis, Airbnb, Apple in media - and now that has resonance for us at the festival.

“A number of works selected for this year’s core programme refuse to sit quietly in any one programme - the first clue that something is in flux.

“Multi-sensory immersive works that cut across the disciplines signal a desire by the artists to engage audiences in new and unconventional ways,” he says.

Johaardien adds that in all the programmes - from theatre to music, to visual art to dance - “the programme selection demonstrates the desire to unpack and showcase how artists are engaging and disrupting prevailing colonial narratives”.

Shaun Oelf and Denise Newman in What Remains. Picture: Yazeed Kamaldien

Said National Arts Festival chief executive Tony Lankester: “In times like these, the need to reflect, revitalise, engage and re-imagine is critical.”

Among some of the multitude of shows that Johaardien says are bound to create dialogue among viewers are:

The Alchemy of Words: The show combines animation, puppetry and live music inspired by the imagery of the poet’s works.

What Remains: Written by Nadia Davids and directed by Jay Pather, a performance that fuses text, dance and movement to tell the story of the uncovering of a slave burial ground in Cape Town and the archaeological dig that follows, in a city haunted by memories of a dark past.

Shaun Oelf and Denise Newman in What Remains. Picture: Yazeed Kamaldien

Neo Muyanga: Muyanga is the 2017 NAF Featured Artist. His performances include Solid(t)ary - a survey of the tradition of protest song in the global south, and Works for Trio by the Neo Muyanga Trio with Andre Swartz, Peter Ndlala and guest artist Msaki working their way through some of the artist’s repertoire.

Sabamye noMendi, Centenary celebration: conceptualised by Mandla Mbothwe, is a multimedia interpretation through song, dance, pictures and film of the sinking of the SS Mendi off the Isle of Wight in 1917, in which 600 black South African troops drowned