Scholar using drama to inspire social change
Canon Collins scholar Kline Smith (MA Drama and Performance, University of KwaZulu-Natal) is a writer, performer, and dedicated change-maker. He has received awards throughout his university career for writing, theatre, leadership, community service and academia, and has recently had his original play, Mob Feel, published.
We spoke to Kline about the development of his passion for performing, the therepeutic power of drama, and its role as a mechanism for political commentary and social change.
Mob Feel is set against the backdrop of gang violence and ethnic rivalry in a Johannesburg township in the 1950s. What made you choose this as your setting?
Mob Feel is in fact an adaptation of Can Themba’s 1952 short story Mob Passion and so it was important for me to stay true to Themba’s beautiful and vivid style of writing which so aptly captures the mood of South Africa in the 1950s. The classic story- which mingles fiction and fact- represents the beginning of black South African short-story writing. The story reminds us that despite the hostile emergencies of the time, racial oppression was always met with human resilience and an insurmountable determination for social justice and freedom.
They play is set in the summer of 1952 against the backdrop of an extended period of gang violence and ethnic rivalry, fuelled by mob mentality, which devastated the township of Westbury, Johannesburg. The tragic love story of Linga and Mapula, and their attempt to overcome an old ethnic rivalry stained with prejudice, violence and pain is told through evocative storytelling. No elaborate props, sets, lighting, costumes and frills are used. It is simply four people with a guitar, a drum, an abundance of energy and a story that is hauntingly reminiscent of the atrocities committed recently in South Africa; most notably, the devastating xenophobic attacks that flared up in parts of the country.
Often when people are part of a group, they tend to experience what is termed “disindividuation” and a loss of self-awareness. When people “disindividuate”, they are less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions and are more likely to lose their sense of individual identity. Groups can generate a sense of emotional excitement, which can lead to the provocation of behaviours that a person would not typically engage in if alone. The group then seems to confer acceptability on some behaviours that would not otherwise be seen as such.
South Africa, now more than ever, faces the rapidly increasing incidences of violence and conflict inherited from a fractured past. Although based on a story that could be considered outdated, Mob Feel hauntingly foresees a reality of life as it is lived today, and reflects the broad canvas of South African society.
As a Canon Collins scholar, you are not only an academic, and a performer, but an agent of change. How do you see drama as having the potential to influence societal change?
My earliest childhood memories are of me gathering my cousins together to put on shows for the family during the holidays and reunions. No doubt, my entrepreneurial drive peaked when I realized I could charge my aunties and uncles for a seat on the floor of a lounge packed with family members. Even more so when we would pass a hat along at the end in hope that some felt the play deserved more than the standard R5 entry fee.
Having never heard of famous theatre practitioners like Stanislavsky or Grotowski and his notion of ‘poor theatre’, I began my directing career, albeit informally, by creating performances that relied almost solely on bodies in a space. I had to; there was no drama department at school and therefore no access to props or costumes. In the small town of eShowe, which I still call home, Drama Studies never formed part of the syllabus at a primary or secondary level of education. Instead, Drama found itself quietly situated in the Team Teaching Room every Wednesday afternoon at 4pm. Naturally, I signed up for these extramural sessions. Although compressed, they ignited and sustained my love for the arts, but the idea that Drama was a discipline that went beyond entertainment was abstract to me. I always imagined being at university, but after matriculating in 2005, I had no idea what I wanted to study, so I opted for a work visa in England, where I worked as a barman/chef for two years. Upon returning to South Africa, I was ready to enrol in a university and had a better idea of what it was I wanted to study.
Since then, I have learned the value of drama, theatre and performance and, through practical engagement, have witnessed the power of drama to affect social and personal change.
You are involved with a youth outreach initiative called ‘Stories for Change’. How did you become involved with this project and what do you hope to achieve through it?
The Stories for Change project is aimed at building and sustaining resilience in adolescents from the Khayalethu shelter for at-risk youths in KwaZulu-Natal. Using Applied Drama strategies, the project gives each of the over 50 children an opportunity to document and share personal life stories through drama, dance, poetry, music and storytelling. These powerful and thought-provoking stories finally become intimately-crafted pieces which are taken back onto the streets and are performed in non-conventional performance spaces in and around the city.
Child protection in South Africa-and indeed the world at large-remains an uncertain art, beset by challenges and disputation at the methodological, conceptual, theoretical, and practical levels. Applied Drama programmes offer participants the opportunity to work on their skills and strengths as opposed to pathologies which only focus on weaknesses. By working with young people and listening to their stories, I hope to help them find their own forms of artistic, cultural and theatrical expression.
How has being involved with the Canon Collins scholars’ network influenced you and your outlook on social justice?
Being afforded the opportunity to form part of the Canon Collins scholars’ network has been incredibly eye-opening and inspiring. The highlight thus far has been the Scholars’ Conference on the theme of ‘Academic Activism’ held in Cape Town last month where I networked with some of Africa’s esteemed thought-leaders who are breaking new grounds through research fostering transformation and social justice.