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IVAN Abrahams (pictured) first heard about a job opportunity coming up at the beginning of this year from Mannie Manim. Knowing Manim from their Baxter days he immediately agreed to keep the time free and leapt at the chance to audition for what turned out to be Athol Fugard’s first Afrikaans play.
“It was a wonderful surprise, also very scary,” said Abrahams about acting in his second Fugard play (he was Oupa Buks in Valley Song in 2003 under the direction of Barbara Rubin).
He auditioned for the role of Koot opposite Erica Wessels who had already been cast as Sarah.
Koot meets Sarah at the grave of his mother, Mieta Ackerman, who looked after his children while he was in prison.
Koot used to be the informal spokesman for a team of Karretjie sheep shearers at the Brug outspan and Sarah has just completed a dissertation in anthropology on the subject of Karretjie children.
Although Afrikaans is Sarah and Koot’s mother tongue, they are culturally from very different worlds, but ultimately connected by shared experiences of pain, guilt, remorse, love and hope.
Abrahams is very impressed by the way in which Fugard and co-author and anthropologist Riana Steyn have approached the play’s language.
“I was going to ask Athol during rehearsals, “How does an English-speaking person write so well in Afrikaans, and on top of it, the Afrikaans of that area, Kimberley, the Northern Cape?”.
“It’s an Afrikaans that’s more hard. It’s more gggrrr,” says Abrahams, rolling the r gutturally.
“But I am enjoying the script. The text falls well on my tongue, I’m not struggling.”
The authentic Afrikaans dialogue comes partly courtesy of Steyn who introduced Fugard to the man who inspired the Koot character.
Abrahams has never lived in the Northern Cape, but loves the way Afrikaans is spoken there. “I like – when we did the school tours in those areas – their lingo, their way of talking.
“It’s a different kind of Afrikaans. Of course, Springbok is also different to Kimberley and this is more Kimberley’s side, De Aar.”
“It’s so fresh from the oven to have the person who did the research with us.
“There’s a certain scene that really intrigued me and I said to Athol, ‘What part of the script is story and what is the truth?’. And he said, ‘No, Riana was right there when it happened,’ “ I was quite surprised.
“Riana was here with us for the first two weeks when we started rehearsing, so she could still give us what she found on her research and the different people and how they relate to each other.”
Now 60, Abrahams was born and bred in Parow and studied at the University of the Western Cape in 1983 to become a teacher, but a lack of money prevented him from completing his studies.
He was part of Group 44 (with Peter Snyders, among others) in the late 1970s and the Belhar Cast in the early 1980s and also worked with Gerald Tertiens, presenting setwork plays to coloured schools, which is how he met actors like Sharlene Surtie-Richards, Royston Stoffels and Peter Butler and realised he loved acting.
He won a scholarship to study theatre-in-education, acting and directing at the British Theatre Association in England in 1985 and returned to South Africa to work for various companies. He managed Capab’s youth programmes until 1997.
He founded and still co-ordinates the Cape Heart Community and Education Theatre Company who do setwork plays for schools and other community work in the Western and Northern Cape and has worked as a freelance actor ever since.
None of this though taught him much about Karretjiemense, nomadic descendants of the San and Khoi who still inhabit the Karoo byways.
“I didn’t know the harsh reality they went through. I had to get it from Riana and the script.
“When it comes to how you stand up against the harshness of life, I think coloured people can relate (to the Karretjiemense’s hardships). Onse ouma en oupas, they know what it is to have just pap on the table. I took part in Suip, and bergies know what it’s like to sleep outside.”
Reseaching his Suip role in the late 1990s meant spending time on the streets talking to homeless folk.
“It was an eye-opener, what I got from them. They’re normal people like you and me. Something just went wrong somewhere along the way.
“Rain, heat – you’ve got to carry your belongings with you and you know, with a lot of these people living in the street, they leave their goodies in the drains. So that’s their nomadic style of living.
“So there are some similarities between living on the street and living outside, not having a home.”
“But with the Karretjiemense, that’s a culture on its own. They’re skaapskeerders (sheep shearers), that’s their job. But it’s just that they are no more there as per Riana’s research.”
Die Laaste Karretjiegraf delves into how this culture has died out.
“This is a culture that has died out and I want to know about it.
“People must come to see it (the play) to see how they dealt with the difficulties in life. We don’t have the slightest idea of how hard they had it. I would like people to come and watch this play to learn more about them and to ask questions.
“Right now there’s a strong thing with the Khoi and the San coming to the fore to claim their land. What’s also interesting in the research was that the Karretjie people don’t want to be coloured. They say, ‘Ons is geel mense (We are yellow people’.
“They’re very proud of where they come from and who they are. I would like all South Africans to see that.”
• Die Laaste Karretjiegraf is on at The Fugard Studio Theatre from January 25 to February 23 and will carry English surtitles.