KINGDOM of Earth is one of the few Tennesse Williams plays that has never really found traction in the US. Seldom performed, it has received a new lease on life though, courtesy of South African production company Arahamse & Meyer Productions.
The Cape Town company first performed the serio-comic play at the Tennessee Williams Festival in Province-town in 2012, and then returned to Cape Town to perform the three-hander to critical success at the Artscape Theatre.
They returned to Provincetown for a two week run of Kingdom of Earth before last year’s festival, plus a run of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.
Director Fred Abrahamse describes working at the festival as an “insane” experience.
“It was amazing. Kingdom of Earth has never really worked as a play in America, but subsequent to us being there, there have been four professional runs. We’ve revived an interest in it,” explained Abrahamse.
While there are similarities in terms of the experience of racial segregation between the US Deep South and South Africa of the 1960s, contemporary theatrical expression of that time is very different.
Abrahamse says he noticed that the US audience was very appreciative of the South African actors’ expression of emotional content and the way they didn’t pull their punches. By contrast, the way US theatre productions covered similar topics were conservative in approach – which mirrors the conservatism of how many Americans still gloss over dealing with the politics of race.
Kingdom is set in the Deep South and features a power struggle over land between two half-brothers who do not share the same mother. The underlying issue of race skews the power dynamic between the two.
“The fact that we tackle the issue head-on, and don’t pull our punches… it’s a testament to our training. We’ve been through the most unbelievable roller-oaster of emotion and that rubs off. We live in a very tangible society and that affects the way we express ourselves,” he said.
Abrahamse says feedback from the audience at the festival reminded him that South Africans underestimate the calibre of actors’ training in this country. As they usually do, all the South African actors on the production helped to unpack the set and surprised the US crew when they re-appeared from the dressing rooms speaking in authentic American accents on stage.
“The crew couldn’t believe that they’d been hearing us speak South African English, and then all of a sudden, ‘they’re American.’”
Their two forays into the US over the past two years is starting to forge links with academics and theatre directors interested in collaborating on other Williams plays and exploring work by other Americans writers from the Deep South and the connection between African Americans and South Africans.
• Kingdom of Earth, Baxter Flipside, February 3 to 22, 8pm, matinees 2pm.