Bringing the Dead Yellow Sands back to life


GRAHAM Weir often remembers something his acting mentor, Graham Coombes, told him: “All you need is a few lights and an actor, the rest is just wrapping.”

Graham Weir. Picture by Jessie Kramer

This advice is acted out to great effect in Weir’s award-winning Dead Yellow Sands, which starts a new run at the Baxter at the end of the month.Yet Weir didn’t write the one-man show to demonstrate the effect.

He originally set out to write a personal journey about the place and people he grew up with. The title refers to the fine, yellow sand that characterised the Joburg mine dumps.Relocated to Benoni, East Rand, as a 5-year-old from Scotland when his parents moved to South Africa, Weir says the play is greatly influenced by the space he grew up in and his early impression of Joburg comes through strongly:

“One of the sketches is that of an ageing singer looking back on the theatres in Jo?burg and when you consider… there were 12 established theatres and that’s one of the things people have found evocative about the play, the reference to old Joburg.

“Just in Commissioner Street alone you had His Majesty’s Theatre, a 1 000-seater, The Colosseum, a 1 000-odd-seater, the Empire…”

He goes on to rattle off all the theatre names, something he does in the show, describing each: “There was a whole theatre life. What’s strange for me is that Joburg was then the epicentre of theatre in South Africa and Cape Town was seen as somewhere quite provincial.“In Joburg, where I grew up, the theatre scene was enormous. The Market used to be a cultural hub. There was a greater sense of a theatre community,” Weir remembers.

It is not just the theatre scene he references, but what the physical space of Benoni and its surrounds were like, which he describes as “quite a wild and savage place” as the veld became urbanised.

“If you think of Hillbrow in the 1960s and ’70s, it was just neon lights everywhere. Now it is a very dark place, with very few neon lights or restaurants; it is a day place. That, to me, is what probably drove the initial spurt to write the stories, looking back on the dimming of the light.

“That relates to the people in the show as well; they are generally characters at a stage when the light is dimming. They’re at the end of careers or their lives. They’re generally in the present, looking back, but also tackling the present.

“What I sought to do with each of the characters was give them a resilience and strength. There’s an acceptance and a triumph in their acceptance of their situation.”

Weir was surprised by just how emotionally affected he was in the rehearsal process, because he based the characters on people he used to know: “Most times when you approach parts, you have to find the pain.

“To me, the pain was there and I had to put it aside to allow the audience to go through the emotional journey. Because, if you get too emotional, then the audience is going to think, ‘Now what?’ Whereas, if the actor can find the detachment… you have to see the emotion, feel the emotion, but then almost have a detachment from the emotion so the audience can feel it.”

Immediately after he wrote the piece, Weir thought he was being too self-indulgent and showed it to Bo Petersen, a long-time friend who has directed him on stage before, and she persuaded him to get over himself and read it to some friends.They did the reading with him simply sitting on a chair in a spotlight, occasionally turning to face different directions and this is how they structured the show. The lighting is important, changing how the audience views Weir, but he stays in his chair as he tells his story, drawing the audience into a different world as the quality of the light changes his appearance. He takes you to a far away place that really existed and has haunted him since he was a boy, becomes several people right before your eyes, yet never leaves his chair, with minimal fuss, but maximum effect.

Dead Yellow Sands, October 31 to November 26, at the Golden Arrow Studio, Baxter Theatre.