Ever heard of Rodriguez? No I hadn’t either.
In December 2015 when researching for a South African play I was to be in, seeking clarity on the very tricky Afrikaans accent I stumbled upon a film called Searching for Sugarman.
Rodriguez is a musician from Detroit who in the Seventies recorded several albums and for whatever reason did not make it big. In America anyway.
In South Africa at this time The National Party had been ruling since 1948; their Apartheid regime segregating a nation by a hierarchy of skin colour and much creativity was being suppressed thanks to the Publications and Entertainments Act of 1963 banning any publication deemed ‘undesirable’. There was no television until 1976 and even then it was government programmed and again segregated by language allowing no English programming.
Searching for Sugarman is the true story of how in South Africa during the Seventies and beyond Rodriguez became a bootleg star.
This didn’t do much for him at the time as the film details; he worked long, hard shifts his whole life as a construction worker in Detroit, Michigan. In the early nineties some die-hard South African fans tracked him down having previously believed him dead and subsequently invited him to South Africa to perform in his unknown adopted homeland documenting as they went.
His first LP Cold Fact had been banned in South Africa for containing drug references (Sugarman=drug dealer, Jokers Coke=Cocaine, Mary Jane….we all know that one) as the very conservative government seemed to be against anything coming into the country that would sully the purity of their young white Afrikaners; different skin colours, abortion, pornography, alcohol sales on a Sunday, homosexuality, gambling…you know the drill.
But Art found a way.
Such was the power of Rodriguez’s music that, unable to buy his record in the shops, people copied and re-copied the few LP’s that made it into the country onto cassette tapes as was the way back in the day until momentum gained, a movement formed and everyone had heard of him. So much so that when he visited South Africa in the 90’s, due to the determined team of fans behind the film, astonished by his new found stardom he played to packed out stadiums of up to 20,000 people who all sang his lyrics back to him word for word.
How perfectly poetic that during a time of such oppression and fear music could still bridge a gap and filter through no matter how inappropriate or illegal it was deemed by the oppressor of the time. The words and notes of Rodriguez’s art became commonplace despite numerous attempts to detain it.
Another place that is experiencing unwavering suppression is North Korea where Kim Jong Un continues in the ilk of his father before him, Kim Jong Il, as the Chairman of The Workers Party of Korea and the supreme leader of the DPRK – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For three generations this family has been so successful in their domination of a country and its subjects that I had not even heard anything about the regime until two years ago when a friend of mine played Kim Jong Il in a theatre production.
This got my attention.
Pyongyang by Korean born writer In-Sook Chappell, shortlisted for the 2013 Bruntwood Prize Award, is a musical set in the city of Pyongyang the capital city of North Korea. It tells the ill-fated love story of two star-crossed lovers from attending the same school young, naïve and devoted to their leader to being torn apart by its class system, discovering that things were not as they seemed and their ultimate escape to South Korea where reunited the two characters struggle to select what to eat from a menu; this new freedom so daunting and difficult after such limitations and systematic abuse of their previous home.
Yes maybe I was a little late to the party here and yes I will be the first to admit that I can be ill-informed when it comes to current affairs, the news or celebrities names however surely my ignorance and that of undoubtedly many others only shows that the oppression is working. The acute food shortages largely due to economic mismanagement, the estimated hundreds of thousands of people held in detention facilities for attempting to leave or making a phone call and the torture and public executions that according to Amnesty International are commonplace. When North Koreans do leave, typically through China, if discovered the Chinese will send them back, as an ally of North Korea China refuses to grant North Koreans refugee status and classes them as illegal economic migrants, that’s if they cannot marry first in China or travel quickly to the safety of South Korea.
These very real issues are highlighted by this play, by this art, with simple story telling. In-Sook dared to speak out for the North Koreans, which is clearly a risky business, by creating two characters both in different social situations yet still suffering the same injustice; one struggling to feed his starving family in the slums the other a prostitute to the supreme leader himself they are united by their lack of so many simple freedoms like choosing what to watch, wear or worship and by a desire to break free.
The refugees who made it out of North Korea carrying their experiences with them like rocks enabled In-Sook, originally inspired by a childhood visit to the Demilitarized Zone at the height of the Cold War, to bring their stories to life; all the way from the streets of Pyongyang to The Finborough Theatre in Earls Court where it was so successful that the theatre extended the run.
Described as ‘a poignant and devastating love story’ (The Metropolist) in ‘a real life Orwellian nightmare’ (The Telegraph) where ‘powerful myths and fragile dreams are the stuff’ (The Times) this piece of theatre is a wonderful example of bringing the suffering of the silent direct to the main stage, of art truly finding its way.
Ironically Pyongyang means ‘flat land’ or ‘peaceful land’ in Korean although maybe this line of dictator would argue that North Korea is peaceful when the subjects simply do what they are told. Art bubbled up through the surface of stifling seclusion to demonstrate the differences that here in the West we are rarely aware of.
There are other places where physical barriers remain. Walls, guns, militia, drones, freedom of movement is prevented on a daily basis and threatens’ extinction to its long term captives; contained by the country that surrounds it.
The Israeli West Bank barrier, in place since construction started in 2000 and condemned not only by the United Nations General Assembly but by The International Court of Justice as a violation of International Law, is a separation barrier in the West Bank erected by the Israeli government essentially between Israel and Palestine.
Israel calls it security. To Palestine it’s apartheid.
Not only are walls in place to keep the Palestinian people in but it seems the Israelis will go to endless extremes to stop artistic expression from getting out; showing the colours of the Palestinian flag together was illegal within the West Bank from 1967 until 1993. Cultural centres have been broken into and destroyed, paintings shot, cinemas bombed and artwork banned.
As a friend of mine who witnessed this first hand put it ‘it’s really the most effective means of suppression-denying someone their voice’. She worked in Rammallah in 2014 in the West Bank with ASHTAR theatre who specialise in Theatre of The Oppressed and are internationally famous for their touring production of The Gaza Monologues. Described as ‘The Rise Of The Phoenix From Its Ashes’ it is a collection of personal stories of a group of children from Gaza about their experiences living in captivity under constant threat.
During her time there she worked on a production that ASHTAR were rehearsing in collaboration with Border Crossings a UK theatre company that was due to travel to London with a half Palestinian and half English cast. It was discovered a few days before they planned to leave that two of the Palestinian actors were not granted visas to travel to the UK despite applying for them months in advance. When attempting to help with this situation, as a British citizen, she discovered she could not even contact the British Israeli Embassy from the West Bank. It was simply not possible. After getting through to the British Embassy in the UK and in Jordan she received no help. No interest. No visas. Bureaucracy was blocking the voices of these two Palestinians yet again and they were unable to tour with the production that they had so tirelessly rehearsed.
When leaving the West Bank herself she was ‘interrogated about nothing’ for four hours for merely admitting having worked with ASHTAR. I remember her telling me how she had books of Palestinian plays and pieces of art that she had planned on returning with to the UK but in a moment of hesitation when leaving for the airport fear got the best of her and she left them in her room in Palestine. What a relief for her that she did considering her next four hours would be spent with Israeli troops and how interesting that after only a short time spent there she too was adapting her behaviour; being suppressed.
Hearing these stories only magnifies the achievement of ASHTAR in their success with The Gaza Monologues. On October 17th 2010 these monologues were performed simultaneously by over 1500 youngsters in more than 50 cities in 36 countries all over the world beginning a global initiative to let the voices of the children of Gaza be heard and let these stories travel where their writers may not.
Human hierarchy is man made as are all of our governments. It is a disgrace to humanity that any form of segregation or censorship should even exist. We are all equals here. We enter the earth in the same ilk as we go out regardless of what building, heritage, lineage or country we are born into; no person is more important than any other and no piece of this earth will ever truly belong to any of us.
When religions, political policies and whims of the powerful act by destructive means to essentially get their own way it seems our only form of resistance and expression is through art. What a relief to see that across the globe in some of the most stifling regimes and troublesome of times murals of rebellion appear on blockades, paintings make it into galleries, books into libraries, music of revolutionaries still enter our ears and stories that have travelled tough terrain are told and performed.
It feels that we are at a turning point in history and we are powerless to predict in which way the pendulum will swing. Some choose to fight and allow anger to dominate their argument while others lay back passively pretending the world does not affect them.
But some of us make Art.
Regardless of what the future holds for any of us rest assured that eyes will witness, truth leaves a trail and Art will always find a way.