New Beginnings: My Father’s Return and My Trip to South Africa

29 Jul

Regular readers of this blog, if indeed there are any after such prolonged silence, have waited for a long time for news of my father’s parole, and I can now proclaim, with greatest joy:

My father is home at long last! Halelujah!

To protect his privacy at this sensitive moment of reentry, I will not say much more than that at this time, but I must express my unending gratitude for the support that so many of you have shown us lo these twenty years. Having loved ones stand with us through this long period of imprisonment has made the journey more bearable, and now we can celebrate together in this new chapter of our lives. My father is a most remarkable man, and I am so very happy that many of you can get to know him in the flesh now that he is home. The blessings cannot be measured.

With this immense joy in my heart, I have set off for South Africa to spend two weeks investigating prison theatre programming here as part of the ongoing research for my book (under contract with Methuen Press) on prison theatre around the world. Previous travels have taken me throughout the United States and to Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Brazil.  Last summer I blogged rather extensively about my trip to Brazil (read about prison visits here and here), and I’ll be doing so again in just a couple of weeks when I’ll travel from South Africa to Rio de Janeiro to meet up with a dozen of my students from the University of Michigan to continue our exchange program with the faculty and students of UniRio who do theatre work in prisons.

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Andy at dinner with the awesome family-sized dhosa (Indian bread) that we ordered. It was as long as the table, and we ate almost all of it!

Andrew Martínez, an extraordinarily talented doctoral student in UCLA’s World Arts and Culture/Dance program, has come to South Africa as my research assistant, and he’s helping me to document all of the things we are learning about prison arts culture and programming here. I’ll be blogging about our journey over the next four weeks in South Africa and Brazil as we try to discover how and why so much theatrical activity is taking place in prisons in these countries.

After nearly two days spent on airplanes and in airports, Andy and I arrived in Johannesburg rather late on Sunday night. We slept in the next day, trying to shake off our jet lag, then ventured out to find dinner and see a bit of the local neighborhood. We’re staying in an affluent part of town called Rosebank, on the north side of Johannesburg, and despite the apparent wealth of the neighborhood’s residents, every home and building looks like a prison. Everything here sits behind ostentatious walls–great solid things with metal spikes and rows of concertina wire surrounding them.  There’s a very wealthy high school just across the street from our hotel, and from the window in our room we can see a fancy swimming pool and a soccer field made of pristine astroturf.  When we walked up close to the school, all we could see were walls and lots of barbed wire.  The day care center across the street was similarly barricaded, as were all of the impressively large homes on the surrounding streets.  I don’t know how to compare this to a wealthy neighborhood in other places I’ve visited. In Beverly Hills or a very ritzy neighborhood I once visited in Cairo, Egypt, you might see high walls around a home and ornate gates, but in those places barbed wire and spiked walls would seem out of place and even signify a diminishment in wealth or class status. In Johannesburg it seems that the more successfully imprisoned you are in your home, school, or place of business, the better off you are.

Today we began our research in earnest, starting with a trip to Constitution Hill in the neighborhood of Braamfontein. Built in 1892, Constitution Hill served as a prison for most of its history, with a brief interlude as a military outpost during the South African War (1899-1902). The prison endured for more than 100 years, housing both men and women–many of them guilty only of the crime of being black during Apartheid. A great many political prisoners served time there, including Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and Albertina Sisulu. In the mid-1990s after the fall of Apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison (he spent only a brief period at Constitution Hill and the majority of his incarceration at Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town), the prison at Constitution Hill shut down. Several of the buildings there were torn down, and the bricks used to build the new Constitution Court, home of a new era of judicial process which was previously unknown in South Africa. Mandela himself lit the Flame of Democracy–an active fire which burns in a designated bowl built into one of the former stairwells of the prison, now enshrined as a memorial.  The remaining prison buildings at Constitutional Hill (and there are quite a few of them) serve as a museum–by far the best curated prison museum I have yet seen.

I’ll have to reflect more on the museum at Constitution Hill in my next blog post and can then also fill you in on the great meeting we had today with members of Themba Interactive, a local theatre company that educates prisoners and other groups about the health threat of HIV/AIDS. I will also do my best to post some pictures of our visit to Constitution Hill because the internet in our hotel room tonight does not seem to want to let me upload any more pictures this evening. (Sorry, Mom!)

I bid you all good night from our little corner of Johannesburg.

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