Emory Report

November 9, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 11

Jane Taylor's play recounts Truth Commission narratives

Rockefeller fellow and South Africa native Jane Taylor is at Emory this fall as part of the Center for Public Scholarship's 1998-99 theme, "Exhibiting Cultures/Performing Cultures."

Taylor, a writer and cultural theorist with a background in theater, literary studies and contemporary South African visual and performance arts, is spending this semester working with Emory's African studies, anthropology, journalism and theater programs.

"I'm trying to give people an idea about South Africa and how it's reinventing itself," she said. At the same time, Taylor is collaborating with a South African composer to develop a new musical theater piece to be produced in 1999.

Taylor completed her PhD in English literature at Northwestern University and is currently a senior professor in the Department of English at South Africa's University of the Western Cape, where she has taught for 12 years. For the past decade she's been analyzing shifts in contemporary South African culture, involving herself in related writing and curating projects.

In 1987 she edited a volume of essays, artwork, poetry and fiction that explores the culture of popular resistance in South Africa between 1976 and 1985. She co-curated "Displacements," a 1994 exhibition of contemporary South African art concerned with issues of identity and landscape. And in 1996 she designed and coordinated "Fault Lines," a series of cultural responses to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), South Africa's equivalent to a war crimes tribunal.

Responding to the complex texture of language and emotion emerging from countless testimonies to the TRC, Taylor wrote her first play last year. Ubu and the Truth Commission is the story of a power-hungry political leader who faces the consequences of his actions-he is confronted in his own home by those he has assaulted.

Taylor customized the script to be performed by members of the Handspring Puppet Company, using puppets to present fragments of testimony taken directly from TRC hearings. The play premiered at the 1997 German Weimar Festival and has since traveled extensively in South Africa and Europe. This fall, as part of the Jim Henson puppet festival, the play has been performed in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, and is now touring in Europe.

Theater Emory is converting the multi-media play to a staged reading on Nov. 10 at 11 a.m. in the Black Rose Theater. In the play's original version, the performers who manipulate the puppets, like the translators used in actual hearings, never speak for themselves. Taylor said the reading will communicate "the rising inflection and tentativeness about translation [and] employ patterns of language that imply the speaker is not producing the thoughts they are speaking."

The reading will be followed by a colloquium on the play and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission between Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and Wole Soyinka. The 2,000-page report documenting the first phase of the commission's work on human rights violations was published last week.

The 41-year-old Taylor said "the way in which individual narratives come to stand for the larger national narrative" is what has interested her in the work of the commission. "The stories of personal grief, loss, triumph and violation now stand as an account of South Africa's recent past. History and autobiography merge. This marks a significant shift because in the past decades of popular resistance, personal suffering was eclipsed--subordinated to the project of mass liberation," she said.

--Cathy Byrd

Ubu and the Truth Commission staged reading on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 11 a.m., Black Rose Theater.

Return to Nov. 9, 1998, contents page