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As a South African living in NYC, it’s often hard to keep track of what’s happening back home. The time difference and going about the daily business of staying afloat in this city is a lot to deal with. Not to mention that local news reports just often don’t include news from further beyond the US of A in their bulletins. Plus, you know, it’s a big world out there so by the time they get to South Africa, it’s when the president is resigning or being charged with a crime.
I remember when I was in LA on an entertainment news assignment in 2008, and was asked by the desk editor to file a story about the US’ response to the xenophobic attacks in the country at the time. Where we usually reflect news from outside SA at the tail-end of our bulletins, US news reports tend to feature a talking dog or other such amusing tales. Barring NPR, and listening to, and reading reports from, the country itself, getting a sense of news from outside the US can be a tad frustrating.
It’s for this reason I think art plays an even more crucial part in our over-stuffed lives. An artist can tell a story – in hindsight, far or near – tell the story as it happened and as it was felt by the people involved. And if the artist or artists have done a good enough job, elicit the viewer to find out more about what went down.
So it was for me with Haroon Gunn-Salie’s Marikana sculpture. I knew a lot but there was so much I didn’t know, particularly about the emotions of the day. And so it is with The Fall, a production playing at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. It comes to the US after having played in Edinburgh and in London, earning awards and high praise. I had heard so much about it and so was glad to have the opportunity to see it. And to let it take me into the complexities around issues facing my alma mater, the University of Cape Town (UCT).
UCT has been dealing with the subject of transformation and de-colonising and the takedown of statues and all matter of grey areas in between. The Fall, written by cast members who were students at UCT during the 2015 protests – #RhodesMustFall & #FeesMustFall – explores the events that took place around this time. With only 7 actors and 3 tables, the production is dynamic and arresting, and paints a clearer, if more complex, picture of what it means to fight for intersectional inclusivity.
Though the story may be a South African – complete with all the colourful slang that goes along with it – the issues are familiar to Americans too. Confederate statues, standing up for black lives in the ongoing struggle for equality and the issue of how to move forward when parts of the population have been deeply wronged are all commonalities The Fall speaks to. Sex & the City actress Sarah Jessica Parker happened to be in the audience the night I saw it, and was full of compliments for the actors. Moreover, she told them something I believe to be true too. Many of the words used in the production around intersectionality and the ways that different forms of discrimination intersect are only just being commonly used here now. These are things South Africans have been acknowledging and talking about for a long time.
“I found it very interesting,” Tankiso Mambolo, one of the actors said to me. “In South Africa, we’ve looked down on ourselves and seen America as this beacon of freedom. But I’m coming here and I’m seeing that we have similar struggles, and our country is actually more further ahead in having these conversations than the free world is, which is very strange to me.”
Art – be it from South Africa or elsewhere, I think, holds real value in helping nudge these conversations along. The Fall, for sure, has already done so much to create more empathy and understanding, and I wish its actors further success.
There aren’t many places to go in New York when you’re homesick for a lekker South African meal. For ‘n bietjie bobotie, some pap & vleis, a bowl of mngqusho, or a slice of malva pudding. Up until Sunday night, there was only one place to go that fed your soul just as much as it did your stomach.
To residents who live in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Madiba became a staple on the block of Dekalb and Carlton streets, opposite the Edmonds Playground, close to the park. To South Africans – and Africans – it became a home-away-from-home. A place to go when you wanted to support your team during the Soccer World Cup. When you needed to mourn the death of Nelson Mandela with others who felt the depth of the loss. When you wanted to vent about the US presidential election and the rise of Donald Trump. Or when you just wanted to catch some local kwaito or jazz tunes.
Owner Mark Henegan started the restaurant 19 years ago, when he and his wife took over a rice-and-beans spot, adding 5 tables and a make-shift bar to create Madiba. Mark wanted to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, to the ideals of freedom he stood for, and the example of sacrifice he served to his country. I remember interviewing Mark when he was expanding to a Harlem location and him telling me about how much he wanted to keep Mandela’s legacy going in the US, for others to follow.
“Mandela was the peacemaker. He said, ‘put down your pangas and your guns.’ He embraced rugby, the Afrikaners, and, through the TRC, helped us come together. We’re all the reflection and image of God – we all have the ability to do great things. If everyone can just do a little bit, we can all make wonders happen. Somebody that went to jail for what he believed in, became president of South Africa. Could you imagine being in that moment in that time, coming out of prison and becoming a president? It’s almost crazy.”
Brooklyn was the first place Madiba went on his first visit to NYC, which was also his first to the US, upon being released from prison. Mark himself was told he was crazy to open up Madiba, as a white man in what was then a predominantly black area that had a problem with drugs. Over the years Fort Greene has changed and morphed into a hip part of Brooklyn, with gentrification causing property prices to surge. Mark has made his battles with rent known – he didn’t have a proper lease on the building and so the restaurant’s future was always unknown.
To have made it this long is testimony to the family behind the scenes – to Mark, who was born in Benoni and grew up in Durban, to his sister, who helped him financially get the place on its feet, to his brother, who spent many a night behind the bar. But also, to those who became family, which is essentially, anyone who walked through Madiba’s doors.
The restaurant attracted a warm hub of people, working with the nearby community to help plant food gardens for local charities and becoming the place to hang out for regular customers. “Madiba is about community; it’s about family, wrapped in a blanket. It doesn’t matter if you’re from South Africa or not. I don’t look at it as a restaurant, I look at it as a community space,” Mark had once told me. It was a space we all could go for a little of that Madiba magic in the US of A.
Shia LaBeouf spent most of this week in a darkened cinema, making it out just in time for the release of Missy Elliott’s hot new single. Coincidence…probably! But there’s nothing that could top the pop rocket that Missy launched this week in the shape of her new track, WTF (Where They From). It had me so excited I forgot to mention in this week’s edition of The Rundown that her forthcoming album is the first we’ve had from her in a decade; she has released singles in that time. But still – it’s big news! That she worked with longtime collaborator Dave Meyers on the video – complete with a disco-ball suit, puppets and laser lights – is even more satisfying. And, as NPR’s Ann Powers says, we’re glad to have her back, purely for the style and substance she brings to pop and hip hop.
Other stories worth knowing this week include the release of comedian Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix series, Master of None, and the movie Brooklyn, which has been garnering great reviews. Aziz manages to capture issues not often talked about on a TV series, and he tackles race, relationships in the millennial era and friendship with nuance, respect and best of all, humour. It’s an endearing series and the music that features at the beginning of each episode – a snippet of a different song for each one – is an inspired touch. Also big in TV news this week, as the questions swirl around Glenn’s fate in The Walking Dead, Jeffrey Dean Morgan joins the cast as mega-enemy Negan. Denny Duquette goes dark! (I know Jeffrey’s been in a number of movies too but he left a mark on my heart as Izzy’s doomed love in Grey’s Anatomy).
As for Brooklyn, Saoirse Ronan gives a delicate, moving performance as an Irish immigrant who moves to Brooklyn and falls in love. Aside from the beauty of the cityscapes, the film touched a nerve in me, as someone who’s moved to NYC from another country. It may be set in the ’60s but the feelings it conjures up are ones felt in any era.
Bringing pop culture and history together is something artist Deborah Kass likes to do, and she’s done it with her first public piece, YO/OY, located in Brooklyn Bridge Park. I like the way it plays on the cultural slang of the city.
The route I took started from Miss Lilly’s on Houston and travelled across the Manhattan Bridge (a tough but rewarding run!), and down to Brooklyn Bridge Park. The bridge is always a challenge, but its views make it worth it!