I was on stage, or at least, in front of an audience, for the first time in a while, last week.
At least, I performed my poetry in front of an audience - not on an actual, raised stage, but with a microphone, and since it was a hipster venue, a table with swings for seats behind me, which doubled as a poet’s high chair.
And guys! On stage is the place to be. To watch someone on a stage is the thing to do. I’d actually half-forgotten how good it feels.
The thing is, I’m an introvert normally. Most days, interacting with more than three or four people can be exhausting. But on stage, it’s all different. I’m somehow another human being for those three or 10 or 30 minutes.
The ‘real’ me seems to be an underachiever. Certainly, he’s not where his 20-year-old-self through he’d be at about 40. On stage, though, I’m talented, I can keep people enthralled, I’m somehow a magical being. ‘An agnostic sangoma,’ as I wrote in one of poems once, if such a thing can exist.
The real me, a middle-class white male suburbanite, is at best complicit in multiple systems of oppression. But on stage is where The Revolution begins. It’s on stage - more effectively than in other forums I have access to, like academic conferences or publishing - that I become a seeker for brand new ways of doing things.
Often, it seems that when I teach class, or write, nothing seems to change. It seems I’m screaming at a wall, even though screaming at a wall is sometimes necessary (if you keep quiet, oppressors will say you enjoyed your suffering). But at least, after I recite my poems on stage, people come up to me afterward and say things like, ‘you know, Hugh, I never thought of it like that; I’ll do things differently, now’.
The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, known for his sarcastic wit, wrote, ‘fine art is the subtlest, the most seductive, the most effective instrument of moral propaganda in the world, excepting only the example of personal conduct; and I waive even this exception in favor of the art of the stage, because it works by exhibiting examples of personal conduct made intelligible and moving to crowds of unobservant, unreflecting people to whom real life means nothing.’
We often do not think of the stage as a big deal in Namibia, but we should.
Namibians might not seem very much into the stage, or the theatre, if theatre is taken to be big, square, expensive building in the middle of town. But surely, we have always gathered to listen to stories, act out scenarios, recite songs and poems? In a sense, we had theatre centuries before anyone built any fancy boxes for it.
How can the stage in Namibia contribute to that magical process called ‘development’? How can art on the stage reduce inequalities? How art on the stage encourage people to rise up against all the oppressions that many Namibians still experience?
Can the stage encourage men to stop acting like trash towards their wives, girlfriends and children? Can the stage encourage white Namibians to share their ill-gotten inherited wealth? Can the stage get some of Namibia’s black capitalists interested in more than simply enriching themselves through corrupt practices?
How can we who are on the stage make our performances better fit the aesthetic of our people, rather than being (as they sadly often are) more suited to the upper-class European model of ‘theatre for the elite in a rarefied white cube of a building’?
I am not an academic that specializes in drama (although I might at times be a dramatic academic). I have nowhere near an answer to any of those questions. I’d recommend reading the work of those who’ve at least tried to answer them.
All I know for sure is, the stage is special. Let’s make it matter.
‘Dr Hugh’ can be seen on a spoken word poetry stage near you. He also has a day job as lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). Views expressed here are personal views.