On the evening of Thursday December 19, 2013, students of the American University of Paris received an early Christmas present, when a visiting South African performance troupe presented the European premiere of The Dirt Road, a new play written by Kim Sanssoucie and directed by Alby Michaels.
AUP Comparative Literature student and author Andrew Davidson reviewed it for you.
The Grand Salon in the Bosquet building is not a space in which one would normally expect a theatrical show to be staged, as the lighting equipment is minimal, there is no proper stage, and there is no backstage space for the performers. While this may have been an impediment for a lesser troupe, the two actors—the playwright Ms. Sanssoucie and Daniel Buys, best known in South Africa for his musical work and his appearance on the Idols television franchise—used the limitations of the space to deliver exceptionally intimate performances. With little division between viewers and performers and with no extraneous staging effects, it felt as though the audience was intruding upon a real couple in the most private moments of their relationship. The feeling of honesty in the approximately one-hour performance was so intense that at times it felt uncomfortable, in the best possible way.
Kate and Simon are a young married couple in Johannesburg. She is a schoolteacher and he is a talented painter, and while they have their difficulties—as any couple does—they are very much in love. Still, they face a significant challenge in overcoming their differing cultures: he is white Afrikaans while she is of a mixed cultural background, or “coloured” in the local parlance. They struggle to make their relationship work in spite of their differences and mostly they do, at least until Kate is sexually assaulted in a random attack. At this point, the story turns into something new and darker and the audience wonders if the couple can survive the event; both characters fall apart emotionally in the aftermath of the assault, and both characters struggle to make sense of their reactions to the incident. The play ends with no easy answers, as the couple investigates who they are and what their relationship has become.
Both actors give fearless performances. Mr. Buys tackles his role of Simon with a masculine vigor that sometimes borders on unsympathetic—and yet he is always understandable, in that he loves Kate and wants to be supportive but he struggles against the teachings of his culture. There are things in life that he desires—many children, and as soon as possible—that are at odds with what Kate wants, but there is no simply reduction or explanation of Simon: he is never a “bad guy.” Mr. Buys’ performance is highly nuanced, bringing depth to a character that in the wrong hands could come across as shallow.
Ms. Sanssoucie matches Mr. Buys in every step, exhibiting both the playful woman Kate was before the attack and the deeply damaged woman she is after it. In one particularly touching monologue, Kate stands in the light and addresses the audience while she reveals what the assault has done to her. She is exposed to the audience physically (in her underwear) and psychologically (in raw emotion), and with all her defenses stripped away the monologue is captivating and horrifying. A theater-goer simply cannot hope for a better moment of honesty than that which was delivered by Ms. Sanssoucie in this monologue
After the play, AUP students had the wonderful opportunity to sit with the director and actors for over an hour to talk about the show. The director Mr. Michaels explained the changes that he needed to make to accommodate the space in which the play was performed, and he was very generous in sharing his understanding of how the theatrical process works generally. Ms. Sanssoucie discussed at length the process of writing the script, which was of great interest to the many young writers in the crowd. It was revealed that Mr. Buys came into the project at the last moment when the original actor originally scheduled for the Paris trip was unable to make the trip to Paris, and this fact made his excellent performance all the more impressive. The producer Olie Kayembe spoke about the logistics of “taking the show on the road,” offering yet another perspective to the event in the form of the business logistics.
This evening was a rare and valuable opportunity for our students to see both the play itself and the creative process behind the show, and I suspect all who were lucky enough to attend will long remember this experience. Clearly it made a fantastic impression upon the students (this reviewer included) who made a trip to the theatre Lavoir Moderne Parisien in the 18th Arrondissement to see The Dirt Road again, just a few days later. It was just as good upon a second viewing—perhaps even better.
In bringing The Dirt Road to the American University of Paris, special thanks need to be extended to the cultural exchange program “France-South Africa Seasons 2013,” which is endorsed by the National Art Council, the Department of Arts & Culture of South Africa, and the Institut Francais. Without this support, the performance would not have been made possible. The show was presented by SliceBean Machine in association with Olie Kayembe, and was hosted by the students of the Department of Comparative Literature and English, supported by the SGA, and the AUP Creative Writing Club. Finally, Ms. Chloe Elder was particularly instrumental in facilitating the event at AUP, and needs to be acknowledged.