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It’s not that easy to pinpoint the kind of theatre Washington’s Holly Bass (pictured) makes. It’s multimedia, generally speaking, and she will introduce anything, it seems, that will benefit the performance.
For the two plays she is staging as part of the South African State Theatre’s Vavasati Festival to celebrate women’s month, she uses spoken word, dance and music and explains it as dance theatre.
But it comes from a specific aesthetic and she explains that it is grounded in community. In other words she speaks her mind on issues that affect the people in her world. It also has to be creative, good storytelling and entertaining.
“I’m asking people to allow me to tell them about their lives,” she says. “It’s theatre by and for the people.”
It’s because of this confusion in an evolving theatre landscape that Holly in her guise as journalist coined the phrase “hip hop theatre”.
“But that,” she says, “also evolves constantly.” The style and the name will change in time but what she was trying to do when writing about this then new artform was to give it a platform, tell people who might not know, that it is out there.
And she’s still advocating this as curator of a Hip Hop Theatre Festival at the prestigious Kennedy Centre in Washington next month.
“It’s still a strong scene,” she says, but one that’s always on the move, like any culture that keeps evolving.
The two plays she has brought to Pretoria are both about 30 minutes long and will be staged in tandem, with an interval. Sweet Science derives from “the sweet science of bruising” in boxing.
With the work she shares her true encounter with Soul Train producer Don Cornelius, who committed suicide last year, and her brother’s battle with depression and mental illness. “You never hear of suicide in the black community,” she says, talking about back home.
What she tries to do as she weaves her story through dance and discussion is to start the healing in a ritualistic way. “It’s about honouring the ones we’ve lost and treasuring the ones we still have with us.”
Hard Work deals with the legacy of labour as she pays tribute to her grandmother who was both a domestic worker and a field hand.
“People often can’t believe that it happened as recently as that,” she says. Most think that one would be referring to great-grandparents perhaps. But for some, it’s just a short space of time away.
“I had a relatively easy childhood and a good education, all of which separates me from parts of my family’s experience,” she says, and that is what she hopes to reflect on as she reminds herself and her audience about her roots. And that of so many people. If they didn’t have those shoulders to stand on, their lives may have been so much poorer.
“I incorporate some members of the audience in the performance and usually it affects them deeply.”
Just a conversation with this performer makes it abundantly clear that she takes both her work and her performance seriously. She travels extensively and hopes to bring the world into her performances.
At present she’s busy enhancing a performance into which she has incorporated Saartjie Baartman.
She also explores her vulnerability as a performer. “I’m talking of 200 years of the bootie of black women,” she says, only half-smiling. While she isn’t performing it this time, she hopes to be back. She is now on a trip to Baartman’s final resting place in the Eastern Cape and is intrigued by local artists who have tackled the subject.
But she’s also giving back and with her recent travels to France and now South Africa, she intends bringing an artist from both of these countries to her Washington festival.
• Performances are from Thursday to Saturday at 8pm and on Sunday at 3pm in the State Theatre’s Momentum.