29 May ’15
Cape Town – Actress Denise Newman is animated as she recounts the project about the woman she has been portraying on stage. They went to the same high school and both grew up in the Cape Flats suburb of Athlone.
Anti-apartheid activist Dulcie September was assassinated in 1988 while in exile in Paris. Her death remains a mystery and has set Denise on a journey to tell the untold story of Dulcie September.
Denise wanted to bring school children from the Cape Flats to see her one-woman play, Cold Case: Revisiting Dulcie September, directed by Basil Appollis.
She was worried her performance would not appeal to young people. But from the moment the curtain opens they are engrossed.
“I knew what was in the broad public domain: that Dulcie September was a political activist and a teacher who was arrested and sentenced to five years, and then another five years of banning orders. Then she left the country and was assassinated in Paris. That’s all I knew about her.
“Basil and I did the research, interviewed all the people and we got the stories from them. It just so happened that Jacqueline Dérens, who was one of Dulcie’s closest friends in Paris, had come to visit Cape Town. She comes down quite often and was here for my opening night as well.”
Denise’s fears dissipated after her first performance to an audience of high school children.
“I don’t sing, I don’t dance, I don’t do stand up. I don’t do any of those things. It’s me telling a story with a bit of lighting that gives it a bit of magic in the darkness of the theatre. There’s a bit of sound and AV. I thought this was going to be hard work. How was I going to get a group of students engaged for an hour with just a talking head? But they were amazingly engaged and followed the journey.
“It’s not an easy story to tell. It jumps around in time and sequence – with snippets here and taking it back. They surprised me in being engaged for the entire hour that I was on stage. Then I would do a Q&A afterwards in case they wanted to ask questions, just so if there was any confusion they could ask it there and then.”
Denise then laughs: “I just told them to please not ask me about Daleen Meintjies from 7de Laan (the character she plays in the TV soapie) because I have no idea when she’s going back.”
Cold Case: Revisiting Dulcie September has been running at the Baxter Theatre, along with Newman and Appollis’s other play My word! Redesigning Buckingham Palace, the story of teacher and writer Richard Rive who was murdered at his home. The run concludes on Saturday.
“Basil and I ran with this initially with no money whatsoever. A friend from Australia last year said he would make it possible for us to go to Grahamstown. He helped us out with accommodation and our transport.
“The response in Grahamstown was unbelievable. Not very many people came to see the show but those who did were very excited and then I knew I had a lovely script.”
Denise decided they needed to take Dulcie’s play to Cape Town. But theatres in the Mother City weren’t exactly lining up to bankroll the production.
She also wanted to bring as many high school children to the theatre as she could and this would cost a lot of money.
Denise and Basil turned to crowd-funding. The result was astonishing.
“How crowd funding works is that you have to offer a reward. It’s ordinary people making a difference. Ordinary people could give anything from R100 to R1 000 and they would get a reward and R100 would get you a ticket to a preview to see the show, R200 sponsored a high school learner to the show, which included transport, and R300 gave you a ticket to our exclusive opening night.
“People from out of town who wanted to sponsor high school kids gave multiples of R200. There was Ruby Marks, who was the ambassador to Thailand, who has a connection to Bellville South High School. She paid for 20 kids to come to the theatre, including transport. When I looked at the figures I could up it to 30 kids with transport.
“Then another woman – living in Zimbabwe who was an ex-South African and whose father was a political activist, Ismail Mohamed, a lecturer at UWC – sponsored 30 kids from Alexander Sinton with transport.”
Denise used her discretion for donors who didn’t have a preference for any particular school. She brought pupils from as far as Atlantis Senior Secondary School to the Baxter.
When gangs ravaged Manenberg, Denise used crowd funding to invite Manenberg High to see both shows, because the Grade 10s were doing Buckingham Palace, District Six as a setwork and the Grade 11s and 12s had just finished the Struggle years of their history syllabus.
Of course, she had to bring Athlone High School – the school she and Dulcie attended.
Denise has been in her element on stage, telling a story she has immersed herself in.
She matriculated in 1972 and had three choices – teaching, social work or becoming a nurse. Teaching appealed to her but she knew she could make a difference with social work.
But before she got down to studying, she was invited to do a post-matric learnership in the US as one of only four non-whites out of 80 who were invited.
The highlight was being able to take subjects like drama and film studies.
“What my parents could afford was matric. We’re talking about the 1970s when it was easy to leave in Standard 8 and do a secretarial course and get a job. I wanted to do matric because I believed it’s part of your rite of passage.
“My mom grew up in many places. They came from quite a poor family and the father left, divorced his wife, and they grew up mostly without a father. My mom, being the eldest, had to leave school early to support the rest of the family.
“All her siblings at her funeral said thank you for her contribution because all of them got a post high school education because she had to go work in a garment factory. She made clothes, so we had clothes and we always looked nice because my mom could sew.
“You realise that it doesn’t matter… that’s what I want to tell the young people, particularly from the Cape Flats and from the township schools who don’t go to the former Model C schools, who don’t have access to fancy education.
“It’s what you make of what you get given that counts. It doesn’t matter that you live in Manenberg or Hanover Park, if you make the right choices in life.”
When Denise returned from the US in 1974 she registered to study social work, through Unisa, and held down a job in the city council at the social work department in Hanover Park.
“It was in the housing office so you had to go out to interview families and I realised I wouldn’t survive because I would cry harder than the poor mothers who were coming to tell me the stories. It would kill me – as a social worker, as a doctor, as a nurse – because you’ve got to learn to step back. I kept getting involved.”
It was around that time that Denise discovered the Space Theatre in Long Street.
“Athol Fugard, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Brian Astbury, Yvonne Bryceland, Barney Simon – all these icons of South African theatre – wanted to work at the Space Theatre.
“John Kani and Winston Ntshona came to do The Island and Sizwe Bansi is Dead at the Space Theatre. It was just a place where I felt you can tell stories that are important to you without compromising your integrity about views on the politics of the time. I became a groupie while working to earn money and studying through Unisa for my social work degree.
“It was the one theatre in Cape Town – the first in the country – that said we are going to have mixed audiences, mixed casts on stage and we’re not going to apply for a permit. How it got around that loophole was that it framed itself as a club.
“One day the director of the theatre, Brian Astbury, husband of Yvonne Bryceland, said to me: ‘Denise Newman, if you don’t jump you will never know. You’re young, you’re unattached, you have no big debts. Just see what happens, just jump into this world and see how it goes.’
“And that is what I did. I gave up my quite lucrative salary of R237 a month,” she adds, laughing.
Denise started sweeping the floors, doing the actors’ laundry, then stage managing before landing an acting role. She got paid about R25 a week at the time. But when she got her first big role in Political Joke, directed by Jean Naidoo and written by Peter Snyders, she was hooked.
“My big passion is theatre. I do a lot of television and film, but I grew up in the theatre. That was my beginning. I do 7de Laan to up my profile and I do it for my bank manager, I don’t do it for my soul. I do theatre for my soul. That’s the bit of my craft where it’s the process that is so different. It is the digging beneath the surface of a character.”
Denise’s passion to tell Dulcie’s story is driven by her desire to celebrate the heroes among coloured people.
She remembers reluctantly her first TV role in 1980. She was furious because when she turned on the TV to watch with the rest of the country, the producers had dubbed her voice with a more coloured-sounding voice because she didn’t sound coloured enough.
“I’m tired of the references to coloured people as being the skollies, the gangsters, fishermen and the flower sellers. There is a lot more to the coloured community than just that. And 90 percent of the stories that come out about the so-called coloured people have those as stereotypes. However well you play it, it’s still those stereotypes.
“Yet, we’re a lot more complex a nation than anyone gives us credit for.
“We’re doing ourselves a disservice and injustice if we don’t tell the other side of the coin: the doctors, the lawyers, politicians. They are my heroes.
“They are the ones who made it possible for us to be here today – Anton Fransch, Robbie Waterwitch, Coline Williams, my favourite South African writer at the moment, Bessie Head, Alex la Guma, Richard Rive… people from the Cape who grew up here, who had a voice.
“We absolutely need to tell their stories and if we don’t someone else is going to tell them. We mustn’t ever lose sight of these people who made a difference.”
Denise has had interested parties making enquiries to take Cold Case: Revisiting Dulcie September abroad. There have been offers to host it in Arcueil in Paris’s Red Belt district, where Dulcie worked and lived. There have also been offers to take it to Australia and Switzerland.
“There are a lot of anti-apartheid activists there who still remember Dulcie,” says Denise.
“My research isn’t done. I want to go to Fort Hare so that I can delve into the 27 boxes sitting there, dedicated to Dulcie September. I want to get to Johannesburg to speak to all her comrades. Ahmed Kathrada kept saying: ‘When are you coming to talk to me? When are you bringing the play to Johannesburg? What are you saying about me in the play?’
“There are a lot of people I would love to interview about Dulcie.”