March Faculty/Staff Spotlight: Catherine Cole

Catherine Cole is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. She is the author of Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission: Stages of Transition and Ghana’s Concert Party Theatre.

South Africa recently marked the twentieth anniversary of its first democratic elections and the momentous passage of one of the great leaders who made this political transition possible, Nelson Mandela. His passage last year inspired a great outpouring of grief, reverence, and reflection, including a call from Chancellor Nicholas Dirks for Berkeley to host events honoring Mandela. TDPS Chair Catherine Cole has been instrumental in organizing a Spring 2015 event series entitled “South Africa in the West” that explores the realities of the post-apartheid era. See the full list of events here. Dr. Cole sat down with TDPS staff to discuss her interest in and research about South Africa, as well as her role in putting “South Africa in the West” together.

19_Mandela_gebruederbeetz_0How and why did you begin studying South Africa?

Like many Americans, I feel an affinity—rightly or wrongly—with South Africa and its story of racial segregation. I feel it particularly acutely as a white woman who grew up in an all-white suburb right outside Detroit during a very tumultuous time of Detroit’s history, with the riots in the 60s. I think there are many interesting synergies between Detroit and Johannesburg, that I feel implicitly.

I’ve also always been drawn to theater of the apartheid, which includes such famous works as Boesman and Lena, Sizwe Banzi is Dead, and Woza Albert! These are shows incubated in a crucible of political adversity. In South Africa at the time these shows were created, just coming together in a room to make theater could mean breaking laws. For me, there is something riveting about art, and especially theater, made under such conditions because it depends on presence and community forged in a situation where neither can be taken for granted.

I just happened to have tickets to see Woza Albert! in a church in Manhattan the very night that Nelson Mandela was freed in 1990. The South African community in Manhattan descended on the performance that night, and it was a truly life-transforming experience.

When I looked for a topic for my second book [the first was on West Africa], I was aware of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC], which was convened at the end of apartheid to deal with the fact that the legal system did not have the capacity to hold people accountable for the full scope of crimes committed under apartheid. This quasi-legal structure was inherently public, unlike many trials dealing with human rights violations in the 20th century, with hearings happening on stages, in front of audiences. As I watched the TRC unfold in the ’90s as a performance studies and theater scholar, I just knew that there was a deeper story of what was happening that our discipline was uniquely positioned to analyze. Though many people noted that the TRC was like theater or had theatrical elements, no one was going deeper. So that became the subject of my book Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission: Stages of Transition that was published in 2010.”

How are you involved in “South Africa in the West” this Spring?

After Mandela passed away in December of 2013, the Chancellor put out a call to the campus asking for programming proposals to honor his legacy. I was part of that committee and spearheaded several of the events that will occur this Spring as part of “South Africa in the West.”

As department chair, I actively work to build strong collaborative connections with other units on campus. The “South Africa in the West” project includes robust collaborations with Cal Performances, The Townsend Center for the Humanities, The Center for African Studies and the Pacific Film Archive, as well as with faculty experts in the departments of TDPS and Geography. “South Africa in the West” is designed in a way that maximizes the impact of all programming by having units work in coordination and with deep collaboration at the generative stage of program design. This is a high value for me, personally, as a leader of our department, especially as the campus must find ways deliver high quality programming in a fiscally constrained environment.

Tell us more about that “generative stage of program design” you mentioned. What were some considerations in the process?

During this process of putting together “South Africa in the West,” my core collaborator was Gillian Hart, a UC Berkeley geography professor. We searched for programming that moves beyond facile assumptions of reconciliation in a post-apartheid period. There is a joyousness, of course, related to the end of apartheid and advent of democracy—South Africa just celebrated 20 years of democracy—and yet there is much that remains from the apartheid era, including tremendous inequality and a legacy of violence.

We were worried that celebrations of Mandela could lead to a simplification of the story. Mandela is such a towering figure and he lived a very long time, so reflecting on him, by definition, takes us easily into a nostalgic mode. We really wanted to bring a depth of reflection to our programming, as well as bring a more forward, future-oriented reflection. We’ve organized events that incorporate a range of voices of artists, scholars and journalists, including people who have come of age since the advent of democracy to look at South Africa after Mandela.

A scene from “Ubu and the Truth Commission.” Photo: Handspring Puppet Company.

What can you tell us about the artists in residence who will be coming to UC Berkeley?

Later in the semester, in late April and May, South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company is bringing a revival of their production of Ubu and the Truth Commission to campus. That production came about through collaborations with Cal Performances. One of the first things I did as department chair was reach out to Cal Performances Artistic Director Matías Tarnopolsky and say, “Let’s inaugurate our relationship of working together. What can we do together?” They were considering a South African play at the time and, for various reasons, I put forward Ubu and the Truth Commission as a suggestion. So that actually fell into place even before Mandela had passed away. It’s a fantastic collaboration and we’re thankful that Cal Performances is able to bring Handspring here.

It’s also a tremendous opportunity for our students. Personally, I think it’s thrilling that this show incorporating puppets is happening at the end of an academic year when TDPS put on Rhinoceros in the fall. There’s a full cohort of students that engaged in making and animating those rhinoceroses who are going to have a whole new insight into what Handspring does.

We’re going to do a series of collaborations with the artists of Handspring, who have become well-known over the years, especially for War Horse. The puppeteers will be hosting workshops with the students in Theater 60, and we’re also setting up a workshop with design students. The playwright of Ubu and the Truth Commission, Jane Taylor, will also be in residence that whole month at the Townsend Center as an Una Scholar, and students (even undergraduates) can enroll in her 1 unit class on “Neither Locke nor Diderot: Sincerity, Toleration and a Theory of Acting.” There’s also going to be a day-long symposium on May 2nd, with panels featuring both Handspring artists and Jane Taylor, as well as scholars of South Africa and puppetry. So there will be many, many opportunities for students to engage.

What are you working on next?

I am currently working on a book about human rights and performance. The working title is ‘Just Theater: The Alchemy of Human Rights and Performance.’ It follows up on ideas from the Truth Commission book, but widens the frame to look at a number of geographic sites and performances both in and outside of Africa. I’m interested in the aesthetic choices that theater artists make when dealing with content that is inherently unmanageable, such as apartheid, the Rwandan genocide and other conflicts in sites across the globe.


See the full list of “South Africa in the West” events here.


March 2015