When last did you watch a play in a theatre? I think I have only seen one since the plague, so finding myself in Cape Town for one night I popped over to the Baxter to watch the latest it thing, Delela, like a tourist coming home from an overlong stay.
Wednesday night. Tickets almost sold out. A trend of students rushing the bar at two minutes to curtain. “Don’t worry”, the barman tells me, “You can take booze in”, so I ask him to fill me to the cusp while wondering if it always used to be like this.
Delela is measured more carefully. The stage is sparse. There is no music. Hardly any mood lighting. The most elaborate physical action is a choreographed finger snap, sassy hair flick, pivoting into a strut, exit stage right. Occasionally the three main characters ask an AI digital voice assistant to play voice-over adverts and recordings from the corporate meeting room that situates the play. Sometimes the interviewer, the fourth player, an outsider, sits in the audience while asking questions. Those are the special effects. In short, Delela is a play of talking heads.
So why were the UCT students so excited? Why was Delela’s run almost sold out? It would be tempting to lean into metaphors of verbal pugilism and intellectual dueling, but they miss the blindingly obvious comparison. Delela is X (formerly known as Twitter) made flesh.
In one corner is the white man. He is going to take over the family multibillion business, but first he has to run the family charity to prove himself to his father, and the board. White man gets in the first klap by firing his sister, the white woman, because she is white. He is white too, he admits, but two whites are too much. He wants a black woman to prove to the media that his heart bleeds for Africa and to prove to the board that he is a PR genius.
The white woman strikes back by pretending to accept the decision, only to recommend a timebomb in heavy high heels. Enter the black woman, who comes from a family rich enough that none of her cousins would ever need a scholarship, and from a prestige job at the country’s biggest bank. Black woman clashes with white man in rounds one, two, and three culminating in a media scandal. White man loses operating control and black woman becomes the new charity president. White woman expects to come back as nominal deputy (and the real boss), but no, black woman threatens to ruin her too by, you guessed it, blackmail. Chekhov said if you show a gun in act one, it had better fire before the end, and here the AI recording the office is the gun, updated to slay both whites.
This coup de grace sends the crowd wild. The triumphant black woman is cheered, the runner-up white woman gets polite applause, and then there is a little booing and hissing at white man, the loser.
It is hard, however, to read an audience, so I suggest having a look at the Daily Maverick’s ululating review by Keith Bain to get the thinking behind this response. According to Bain, Delela proves that white people are the worst, boooooo, black women are the best, yaaaaaaay, and he loves it.
According to Bain the white man “is utterly blind to the reality of his own privilege”. By contrast the black woman is “so sharp and forceful you almost can’t believe how much you instantly adore her for her guts and bravura, and for her dedication to the task of putting her new boss firmly in his place.”
This is not just a fictional drama either, according to Bain, but really a kind of documentary. “The reversal of fortunes is not only fun to watch, but provides the opportunity for a series of increasingly eye-opening revelations about how white people talk to — and about — black people.”
On this reading, the way that white people, in their millions, talk to black people, in their millions, has finally been “revealed”.
In a way, the first part of my own review plays the same game as Bain by withholding the character’s names and simply calling them white man, white woman, black woman, and interviewer, as if they are meant to stand for everyone of that description. Insofar as that is a proper way to look at the play, it could just mean it toys with tropes, showing how they work and how they don’t.
But not to Bain. He says Delela only seems like “a demented satire in which the worst of a bad bunch of despicable whites are being placed under the microscope. Thing is”, however, he believes, “if you listen carefully, you realise that what you’re hearing is precisely the sort of rhetoric that is spewed out, again and again, in the day-to-day reality of South Africa. As much as its political drama…it is also unmistakably a very honest documentation of our topsy-turvy contemporary society.”
This “very honest documentation” of “despicable whites” is also seriously, in Bain’s view, about getting audience participation in the white = boo,black = yay! vein. Bain writes that he finds it “deeply rewarding” that the audience yells the equivalent of “You go girl!” when the “promising young black woman tells her white sparring partners precisely what’s what”. There is nothing bad to say about black woman, nor anything good about white man. This makes Delela “a play offering hope for the future”.
White man boo + black woman yay = hope for the future: a familiar political equation. It is also a serious one at the centre of my trip to Cape Town. I had gone to present Parliament with the case for spending the government’s annual R1 trillion procurement budget on a value-for-money basis. The counter-argument was essentially white man boo + black woman yay = hope for the future. MP Jimmy Manyi (for the EFF) said that value-for-money purchases waste money if white businesses do the job of providing services or stuff that is helpful to the poor. The International Women’s Forum South Africa said President Cyril Ramaphosa’s promise to “set aside” 40% of that R1 trillion for women is outrageous because 50% must be “set aside” for women in general and black women specifically, regardless of the cost. Yay! black women. This submission literally drew a round of applause at the Treasury Standing Committee.
What about the working poor, the unemployed, and the 4 million + starving South African children who depend on declining government services that cost more when value-for-money is compromised? What about private enterprise crashing, or offshoring? What about the Zondo Report’s recommendation to put value-for-money ahead of race and gender? What about the grants for malnourished people that will be cut, as opposed to race-based charity for centimillionaires? The blind eye gazed down upon such detail without a blink.
That is what audience members like Bain and the twitterati did to Delela too. They sat in the theatre, but missed half the detail and all the irony. This is amazing because I thought Delela was, if anything, a little too obvious in its damning send-up of the whole damn circus. Let me explain.
Delela goes over the same conversations repeatedly from different points of view, a lot like Copenhagen, a wonderful talking-heads play about a nuclear conversation between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg during WW2. These variations on a few office exchanges would be terribly dull if it weren’t for all the funny insults and occasional political rants. The big “reveal”, however, is that the white woman and the black woman explicitly conspired to ruin the white man from the beginning. The play drags in its penultimate phase because this “reveal” was hardly a revelation at all. From the moment that white man fired his sister, she was subtly (and I mean subtly with a capital “B”) furious with her cocky little brother tossing her from the nest. Who wouldn’t be? She dropped the recommendation for Letsatsi Letseka, formerly known as black woman, in the heat of that rage, making it obvious what was to come.
But if that was not enough, Letsatsi made it even more obvious from the first beat, and in every beat that followed, including in interview moments where she brags about her hollow, transactional attitude towards other people. It was obvious enough that the ladies both wanted the man to fail. The only surprise is that they deliberately conspired to klap the white man by concocting a schedule clash and then doubling down on it, race-baiting in the office, duping white man into making a false corruption allegation against Letsatsi, and then sending him overboard in front of the media.
Bear in mind one of these conniving charity saboteurs embodies what Bain calls “awe-inspiring” “You go girl!” black heroism.
What about the poor little children? The people that are supposed to be on the receiving end of the charity simply do not feature in the review, or the “black woman= yay!, white man= boo!”approach to the public stage.. But their cries haunt the play from beginning to end. Everyone on stage talks about going to the township to help themselves to more power and prestige.
The white man, named Sebastian Strauss-Smith, is no help to the poor little children. He is incompetent, a waste of the family fortune. One of his more risible repeated lines was that poor kids are just as smart as white kids, which is not an “eye-opening revelation about how white people talk to — and about — black people”, as Bain would have it, but rather a much-tweeted gaffe by US President Joe Biden. Sebastian bullies his sister. He hires Letsatsi because she is a black woman. He is contemptible on all these scores and more.
The white woman, Stephanie, is a charity saboteur, an emotional terrorist, and lies to her family. She is like a walking G&T with extra bitters. Not a giver. She and her brother are eager to commodify black skin for their own gain. That they have in common with Letsatsi, who is just another colour asp in a dish of snake linguine.
All three, in short, are greedy race merchants smashing charity at the altar of their self-worship. Boo them all, if booing is one’s thing.
For performing these antiheroes with wit and panache sufficient to keep me laughing almost throughout, the actors Katlego Lebogang, Daniel Barney Newton, and Frances Sholto-Douglas deserve many cheers. So does the young writer-director Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni, for making a clever play. Credit too should go to Fadzai Simango, who plays the journalist interviewer probing each protagonist’s highs and lows with all the wry scepticism missing from Bain and co.
Perhaps the nastiest thing to be said about Delela is that by the end the audience was more interesting than the action. But this is South Africa, and that sometimes happens, even to more mature comic confrontations with evil. Ask any theatre lover about the bad old days and they are sure to tell you what it was like sitting in an audience that illegally mixed races; half the thrill was just being there amidst fellow beings.
Now, in a different way, the times rhyme, and it is rewarding to laugh with people, including those who can’t tell they are part of the joke.
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