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Performing Memory: Theatricalising Identity in Contemporary South Africa

Aims and objectives
Rationale and context
Leverhulme progress 2009-2013 (Word Document)


Remembering and recording contested histories dominate present academic and political discourses in South Africa. This has resulted in much revisioning of the processes by which history is made and ‘presented’ in archives, exhibitions and museums. It has been argued that memory has been central to the processes of redefining and representing new identities in post-Apartheid South Africa. In the rush to produce ‘new’ histories, and define the ‘new’ South Africa, the focus on memory and history has not only affected how archives are constructed, but also how they are ‘performed’. This project aims to analyse the implications and the impact cultural practices may have for these processes.

A key element of the project lies in a comparative exploration of how ‘identity’ is constructed and performed – taking ‘performed’ to signify behaviour that is rehearsed or learnt. The notion of ‘embodied’ memory is particularly important in highlighting the presence or absence of the subject in the construction of personal and communal identities within South Africa – a country struggling to identify itself in relation to a traumatic recent past. Although a range of media comes within the project’s purview, the dominant conceptual and communicative metaphor will be theatrical, with an emphasis upon the following hypotheses:

  • That memory functions as a key element in contemporary South African re-imagining both of historical events, and new definitions of national and personal identity.
  • That this re-imagining involves new definitions of personal and national identity.
  • That the insertion of personal narratives within these memory-driven reimaginings of individual, social and communal identities by current theatre practitioners are creating significant challenges to State-defined, -unified, and over-simplified definitions of South Africa as the ‘rainbow nation’.
  • That these personal narratives have shifted from being primarily 'realist' and 'verbatim' aesthetic towards more exaggerated, hyper-theatricalised forms.

These hypotheses have led us to ask the following questions:

  • How does recent theatrical practice in South Africa represent longing for a new homeland?
  • How is the historical narrative of the country internalised through newly dramatised forms of consciousness?
  • What specific theatrical forms represent regressive and/or emerging structures of self in the community?
  • Is there a sense in which the clash of different memories and imaginative forms is transforming definitions of South African theatre and South African identity?

The collaboration between Dr Hutchison (University of Warwick) and Professor Walder (Open University) has been established to enable a mutually enriching engagement with these important questions, and to seek a better understanding of the relation between theatrical practices broadly conceived, and ways of defining or redefining identity in the postcolonial state. Dr Hutchison is particularly focussing on specific archives, museums, and particular performances, both in the public and theatrical contexts to explore how these have and are contributing to the encoding of narratives of a coherent nation, as well as providing alternative embodied memories. Professor Walder is focussing on the way in which the testimony-theatre of the apartheid era workshop theatre of Fugard and others has been transformed into a new way of testifying to the present through memory. These aims are seen as overlapping and complementary, hence the desire to supervise two postgraduates researching in parallel as far as is practicable in terms of the two institutions involved.


It is intended that an archive of materials collected as part of the research will be created, to be lodged in the Ferguson Centre as part of a South African Theatre Archive, initially established with the research materials gathered over many years by Professor Walder and made available to both students.

The studentships

An attractive feature of the two studentships is that they are intended to complement each other. The students will be supervised in parallel, thus enabling the students to benefit from the expertise and experience of Dr Hutchison and Professor Walder, and the support of the respective institutions, while they pursue their own, self-defined areas of research within the overall project questions, aims and objectives. It is intended that the student supervised by Dr Hutchison will have direct, first-hand experience of contemporary South Africa, and that the student supervised by Professor Walder need not, while being aware of South African history and conditions.

The Warwick student will need to engage with the more ‘internal’, multi-cultural and multi-lingual issues unavoidable in a country as diverse as South Africa – including local performance forms, such as performances that integrate ritual with community performance projects, either on the fringe or in mainstream theatre in South Africa. Thus proficiency in various indigenous South African languages will shift the research beyond what has already been documented, or critically analysed, to new, current material and analysis. Potentially, it will also widen and accelerate the research of the two applicants, as they share research with one another from their specific perspectives. We expect the Open University student to have an ‘outside’ perspective, offering a wider understanding of issues of memory and identity construction within which to ‘place’ the South African contemporary experience.

Stipend, expenses, facilities

The Leverhulme Trust studentship will pay tuition fees and will provide a maintenance grant equivalent to current UK Research Council rate for research students based outside London (currently £13,290 for the first year, rising to £13,650 in the second, £14,020 in the third). Certain project-related costs, including one research visit to South Africa, will be covered as well. Full-time postgraduates have the use of a desk, with a computer, in the department. They will have access to the electronic and hardcopy collections of the University Library.

The Warwick University PhD candidate will be registered with Warwick University, and while Dr Hutchison will supervise the research, the student will also be assigned a mentor, with whom they can discuss any academic issues, beyond the research. They will begin their research training through the Graduate School’s Skills Programme based on the Research Councils’ list of competencies that postgraduate researchers are expected to have or develop during their research ( The Department also runs regular research seminars, often with eminent invited speakers, which the student will be expected to attend, and at times, present their research-in-progress.

Aims and objectives

The project aims to explore the relationship between memory and identity, particularly in terms of how identities have been structured and ‘performed’, and the role personal and collective memories have played in the performative processes. It will explore how South Africa has encoded itself linguistically (through oral and written narratives) and spatially, temporally and in various physical embodiments, including archives, exhibitions, installations, memorials, theatrical and dramatic performances. The historical boundaries of the project include the Apartheid period, the transition following the election to power of the ANC, including the 1994-1998 Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, to contemporary performances in the new millennium.

Rationale and context

The significance of this research lies primarily in its focus on theatre and performance, as opposed to social, religious, legal and political perspectives, in terms of what light this perspective may shed on the important relationship between memory and the construction of both personal and collective identities.

It is also important that this research engages with how the specifically African cultural frames have impacted on the negotiation and consensualisation of South Africa’s current social values and ideological paradigms. It particularly seeks to explore the relationship between the archive and embodied knowledge, or lived experience; and the role performance plays insofar as it facilitates live dialogue between the audience and performer. It seeks to explore how this dialogue may affect the construction of various archives, and how this dialogue challenges policies related to various, diverse communities in the ‘new’ South Africa. It also raises the important issue of the reliability of memory as the basis for the constructions of identities.



Yvette Hutchison

South African Performance and Archives of Memory. Manchester University Press/ Palgrave, 2013.

(ed.) African Theatre: Histories 1850 and 1950, James Currey, imprint of Boydell, 2010.
"Women Playwrights in Post-apartheid South Africa: Yael Farber, Lara Foot-newton and the call for Ubuntu", chapter 9 in Contemporary Women Playwrights into the 21st Century, (eds.) Penelope Frafan and Lesley Ferris. Palgrave Macmillan, (pending). ISBN: 9781137270795.

Hutchison & Walder (eds.) Contemporary Theatre Review: Making Theatre in Africa: Reflections and Documents, 21:1 (2011).

Dennis Walder

'Hysterical nostalgia in the postcolony: from Coming Home to District 9', in Special Issue on Nostalgia, (eds.) Sarah Edwards et al, Consumption Markets & Culture, Routledge, 2013.
‘Grieving in the graveyard: The Train Driver’, for South African Theatre Journal, 2013 (pending).

Jenny Doubt (Open University)

PhD Dissertation - Making Memory Work: Performing and Inscribing HIV/AIDS in post-apartheid South Africa
Review Article - ‘The Battle Against HIV/AIDS’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 39:1 (2013), 227–234.

Awelani Moyo (University of Warwick)

PhD Dissertation - Re-tracing invisible maps – landscape in and as performance in contemporary South Africa, 2013.

‘A Quiet Horror – reflections on performing traumatic narratives in South Africa’ will appear in a volume entitled Voicing Trauma & Truth, Oliver & Peter Bray (eds), Interdisciplinary Press. (pending, late 2013).

Conference papers

Yvette Hutchison

‘Modernism, an engagement with apartheid, and beyond.’ IFTR 2010 Cultures of Modernity, University of Munich, Germany, 26 – 31 July 2010.

Green Man Flashing: a theatrical exploration of the place of the individual [woman] in the newly democratic South Africa. Women’s History Conference. University of Warwick, 10-12 September 2010.

Gender is a matter of life or death: Post apartheid South African women playwrights, at African Theatre Association’s Metamorphosis and Unconventionality in African Theatre and Performance Conference, University of Cape Town, 12-15 July 2012.

Dennis Walder

‘A Grand Childhood’, Empire and Me: personal explorations of Imperialism in reality and imagination Conference, Cumberland Lodge, Windsor, 17 June 2010.

‘Researching memory in the postcolonial context’, Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore, 19 May 2010.

'Grieving in the postcolony', Opening Keynote Address, Grievings International Conference, University of Silesia, Katowice, Poland, 21 September 2012.

Jenny Doubt

‘Overview: Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina II, scandal and silence’, English Postgraduate Research Day Conference, Open University, London Regional Centre, 19 June 2010.

‘South Africa’s HIV/AIDS ‘Memoirs’: Exploring local and global auto/biographical expressions of the pandemic’, ALA Annual Conference, Ohio, USA, 15 April 2011.

‘The Problem of Methodology in HIV/AIDS Research’ working paper presented at the English Department Postgraduate Conference, 8 September 2012, Milton Keynes, UK.

Awelani Moyo

'A Quiet Horror: Reflections on performing traumatic narratives in contemporary South Africa.' 1st Global Conference - Trauma: Theory and Practice, Prague, Czech Republic, 14-16 March 2011.

'Re-membering the Landscape: Memory, Identity, and Public Performance in Cape Town.' Performance Studies International – Camillo 2.0: Technology, Memory, Experience, Utrecht University, Netherlands, 25-29 May 2011.

‘The Industry of Forgetting,’ Performance Studies International #18 – Performance, Culture, Industry. University of Leeds, UK, 21 June-1 July 2012 (collaborative presentation with Maria Hetzer – University of Warwick; Cara Berger – University of Glasgow; Maiada Salfiti – Sheffield Hallam University).

‘Problematising “indigeneity” in/ for South Africa’s “rainbow nation”: the role of festivals.’ Building Reconciliation and Social Cohesion through Indigenous Festival Performances Symposium, University of London Institute, Paris 17-18 November 2011.

Research seminars, colloquia, etc.

Yvette Hutchison

2013. ‘Embodied remembering: disturbing fixed narratives related to Cape coloured and /Xam identity, history and memory‘, University of Exeter Drama Department Research Seminar Series, 13 February 2013.

2011. Translating Trauma beyond the TRC, at Translating Cultures: Circulation of Events through Performance, Warwick University, 20-21 June 2011.

2010. Leverhulme project outlined at the Africa@Warwick, organised by the Institute of Advanced Study, to showcase Africa-related research, teaching, collaboration and culture at the University of Warwick to various funders and stake-holders in Britain, USA and Africa,15 – 16 January, University of Warwick.

2010. Implications of an African approach to ‘truth’ and ‘reconciliation’ for a post-conflict situation: the use of narrative by the state and in fictional contexts. Early Career Summer School: Theory for a Global Age: The Place of Africa? IAS, University of Warwick, 4-9 July (this presentation on 7th).

Dennis Walder

Convened ‘Cultural Crossings’ Research Workshop: ‘Memory, Home Migration’, at Open University on 1 June 2010. Guest speaker: Alison Blunt (Professor of Geography, Queen Mary’s. Doubt and Moyo presented papers:

  • Jenny Doubt. ‘The Cartography of the HIV/AIDS Narrative in South Africa’.
  • Awelani Moyo. ‘Migrating towards the subject: how landscape informs identity construction in contemporary South Africa’.

‘Postcolonial Nostalgias: the South African dimension’, research seminar, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, 13 October 2010.

Jenny Doubt

Chair for ‘Conflicted Territories: Rural and Urban Conflict’ panel at Reading Conflict Conference, Institute of English Studies (University of London), 19 July 2010.

‘The Cartography of the HIV/AIDS Narrative in South Africa’, short presentation contributed at Cultural Crossings: Home and Memory Research seminar, Open University, Milton Keynes, 1 June 2010.

‘Performing Memory’, working paper presented to the Ferguson Centre, 8 March 2011, Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

Participant in seminar ‘Making Science or Making Sense: What We Can Learn from HIV/AIDS Fiction in South Africa’, 15 September 2011, University of Cape Town, SA.

‘The Legacy of ‘AIDS Denial’? Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome to Our Hillbrow and Liz McGregor’s Khabzela’, invited speaker to ‘Week 8: Cultural Discourses on HIV/AIDS’, MA Travelling Africa Course, 23 November 2011, SOAS, University of London, UK.

‘Other Cultural Discourses on HIV/AIDS’, invited speaker to ‘Week 9: Cultural Discourses on HIV/AIDS’, MA Travelling Africa Course, 7 December 2012, SOAS, University of London, UK.

Awelani Moyo

Poster – Warwick postgraduate poster competition, 18th May 2010, Wolfson Research Exchange, Warwick University Library.

‘Migrating towards the subject: how landscape informs identity construction in contemporary South Africa.’ Theatre Studies postgraduate research day 21st June 2010, Milburn House.

On ‘Feedback’ panel discussion, Infecting the City Festival: Treasure, 24th February 2011.

‘Race against Time: shifting subjectivities through site-specific performance in Grahamstown’. Theatre and Performance Studies Postgraduate Research day, Milburn House, Warwick. 15 June 2012.

A new archive of material, housed at the Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies, Open University.


The project will run for three and a half years, commencing 1 September 2009 with the recruitment of the two PhD students.