Sparked by what may have happened to his mother - no-one claims to know - this versatile theatre maker (who is production manager at Magnet Theatre) has written a play, 'Red Aloes', performed by Iman Isaacs and Richard September.
Stewart was born in Zimbabwe to a South African mother and a Zimbabwean father. He was 3 when his mom moved to KwaZulu-Natal.
“She worked for a cattle co-op as her main work - developing operation sustainable for the community of Manguzi /kwaNgwanase. I found out later in my life that she was part of the MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe) and that this was a strong possible motive for her murder.”
After his mother’s death, Stewart and his baby sister went to live with an aunt in Joburg, who returned from the UK to care for them.
He returned to live in Zimbabwe when he was 10 and completed his schooling there.
“I went to live with another aunt and uncle - now my adopted parents - having to separate from my 3-year-old sister. This was a second divide. We were then raised by different parents.
“She now lives in Cape Town. It is the first time since she was 3 years old, that we have lived in the same city and we are very close. She is also studying to become a theatre maker and is very talented in writing, performing, creating and painting/drawing. She painted the picture on the poster.”
His sister is Puleng Stewart. Talented family.
When he 19, Themba Stewart left Zimbabwe to study at UCT - initially Social Sciences - but then he auditioned for the theatre and performance degree, majoring in theatre making.
The genesis of 'Red Aloes' goes back to a presentation given in his last year of study. He graduated in 2008.
Now at 32, he is in a different frame what he was as a student.
“ At 22, I had little connection to the social and political connotations of my mother’s death. In the last 10 years, after some personal interrogation and a better understanding of the potential a story/play has to comment on our social landscape I feel I am in a better place to tell this story.
“In my research for this play, which is highly personal, I stumbled across the multitudes of similar stories from this period that I had previously labelled peaceful and transitional in my mind.
“I was shocked at the extent of political violence to have occurred after the opposition parties were unbanned, and when Mandela was released.
“I also was shocked that I knew so little about it and asked myself, if I hadn’t been interested in this period because of close personal ties, would I have learnt about these thing? What does your average youth (early 20s to 30s) know about this period?”
Memory - the nebulous nature of fragments and erasures - how we grapple to recover or reconstruct a sense of our stories, is at the core of this play. It is memory which is at best drawn from a palimpsest - a fugue of what happened to his mother: facts and maybes; conspiracy theories, erasures and who-knows what.
“The play centres around the topic of memory; idea of memory being fragile; being boxed away. Being susceptible to irreversible change if contradicting facts are attached to them.
“This relationship to memory as well as the fact memory can be driven by the senses and images led us to create the play using an image-rich language.”
The details of his mother’s death were sidelined in the transition period in South Africa - from apartheid to democracy. We may glibly say that the story was “lost in transition”, but that doesn’t begin to address the trauma, dislocation and ruptures.
“By the time I moved to Joburg I spoke English from my schooling - but I lost Zulu because I stopped using the language. The loss of my mother is connected to the uprooting/loss of a language that would have deepened my connection to the country.”
'Red Aloes' is on at Magnet Theatre, 142 Lower Main Road, Observatory, from August 4 - 12 at 8pm. Tickets are R60-R90. Book at www.webtickets.co.za.