Denise Newman in What Remains. Picture: Laura Skippers

High drama was severed at the What Remains production at the National Arts Festival. 

The cast consisting of Denise Newman, Faniswa Yisa, Shaun Oelf & Buhle Ngaba shares a story loosely based on uncovered burial grounds in Cape Town and other global sites. 

Four figures – The Archaeologist, The Healer, The Dancer and The Student – move between bones and books, archives and madness, the uncanny and the known, memory and magic, waking and dreaming, paintings and protests, as they try, desperately, to reconcile the past with the now.


The production fuses text, dance and movement to tell a story about the unexpected uncovering of a slave burial ground, about the archaeological dig that follows and about a city haunted by the memory of slavery. 

What Remains. Picture: Laura Skippers

Weekend Argus’ content producer Andrew Robertson, chatted to the production’s writer Nadia Davids, after it’s final show, in Grahamstown. The production is on in Cape Town from 6 to 12 July.  

Andrew: So, Nadia, tell me a little bit about What Remains?

Nadia:  What Remains is a play about slavery and the haunted city, about ghosts and property developers, about archives and madness, about history, memory and magic, about paintings, protests and the now.

I first began writing it at the end of 2014. At the time I thought I was working on a novella, a text about Cape slavery, loosely based on the uncovering of the graveyard at Prestwich Place in Cape Town where, in 2003, a corporate real estate development famously, unexpectedly, struck an eighteenth century burial ground—one of the largest ever to be unearthed in the Southern Hemisphere. Nearly 3000 bodies were accounted for, from babies who were a just few weeks old—the children of slave washerwomen—to men in their late sixties. It was, by any estimation, an astonishing turn of events.
The response in Cape Town was immediate and polarised: the property developers wanted to continue building, heritage managers and archaeologists prioritised a scientific examination of the remains (important data could be drawn from the bones, the material traces held answers, frustrating gaps in archival research could be closed) while an alliance of community activists claiming descendancy from those buried insisted on the immediate re-interment of the bones. They felt (understandably) that to examine the bones, to pick them over, would be to commit violence afresh on bodies that had in life been subjected to unforgivable cruelty. 

Video: Jason Miller

A:  What’s the first hook that gets a new play started for you? Is it an image, a theme, a character?

N: I don’t know. There’s no telling really what’s going to take hold. Sometimes I work away on something for months and it never sees the light of day, I never finish it, or I think it’s un-publishable. Other times I work on something quickly and easily and it feels like finishes itself. What I do know is that I have an endless fascination with my home town, with Cape Town, I keep mining it for stories and it never lets me down.

A:  How did it come about?

N: With this play I was researching the Prestwich Place burial ground and I began to think of it as a kind of metaphor for where the country is today: ghosts of the past, unfinished business, eruptions demanding to be noticed, the struggle for the city…

A: How did the writing process begin?

N: With reading. I read deeply for a while and I really immerse myself and then I put the books down and try to find a quiet space to write and let things take a different kind of shape.

A: I suppose the most obvious question to ask is if the lead character played by Denise Newman, is it autobiographical or based on anyone?

N: No it’s not autobiographical. But I have met and do know women who are like The Healer, who hold their beliefs close, who live in between the practical, the here and now but have a mysterious communion with what lies beyond it. And who also have biting, hilarious commentary about everything and everyone. 

A: Which brings us nicely onto the cast, tell me a little about them.

N: Incredible cast. Denise Newman (a theater legend) plays The Healer, Faniswa Yisa (incredible performer-deep and layered) plays The Archeologist (we’ve known each other since Drama school days, we worked together on my student piece-that's almost 1999-that's almost 20 years ago!). Shaun Oelf plays The Dancer (an absolutely beautiful artist), Buhle Ngaba (a wonderful young actor and an absolute delight!) and of course the incomparable Jay Pather, the director. Dream Team for sure.

A:  What is your profession’s greatest challenge today?

N: The same as its always been; finding and creating a space for women writers to make work, to be given permission to success and to fail. And then there are challenges that are unique to our time around the reactive immediacy of online culture: how to make considered work that takes its time, that sits and sifts carefully… there’s a need to get things out in a rush. Sometimes that’s a good thing-some things need rushed responses-but there’s a lot to be said about taking ones time to do good work.

A: What are you currently working on?

N: A couple of things, but it’s too early to say.