Captivating storytelling is what remains

Nadia Davids returns to African shores for the premier of her new play, What Remains.

After a nine years, a multi-award-winning Woodstock writer, theatre-maker and scholar is back to grace the South African stage with her latest play,What Remains.

Nadia Davids, who grew up in Walmer Estate, has garnered several awards and nominations – including five Fleur du Cap theatre awards as well as one Noma and one Naledi – for her productions, At Her Feet and Cissie, which have been performed locally and abroad.

Her debut novel, An Imperfect Blessing, was long-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Award and shortlisted for the UJ Prize and the Pan-African Etisalat Prize for Literature.

Davids holds a PhD from UCT and, as an AW Mellon Fellow, has been a visiting artist at the University of California Berkley and at New York University. She also lectured at Queen Mary University of London and is a recipient of a Philip Leverhulme Prize for her research on Prestwich Place, where the bones of 2000 people, believed to have been slaves, were found in Green Point in 2003.

Davids’s passion for writing stemmed from an early love for reading, living in a house full of books and with parents who were always reading.

“These things all helped tremendously in making one believe a life of reading and writing is possible.

“And I was lucky, as my parents were incredibly patient and indulgent about listening to poems, sitting through endless made-up plays and having an older sister who was and still is my first reader.”

What Remains will be staged at the UCT Hiddingh Hall campus next month after it premieres at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, with a run from Thursday June 29 to Saturday July 1.

It’s a captivating fusion of text, dance and movement telling a story about an unexpected uncovering of a slave burial ground in Cape Town, the archaeological dig that follows and a city haunted by the memory of slavery.

When the bones emerge from the ground, everyone in the city – slave descendants, archaeologists, citizens, property developers – is forced to reckon with a history sometimes remembered, sometimes forgotten.

“This is a play about history, memory, magic and the now,” says Davids.

“Slavery in the Cape is a history full of silence and unresolved sorrow. And unresolved histories have a way of making themselves known. It is a play about how history erupts and disrupts the present.”

Four figures – The Archaeologist, The Healer, The Dancer and The Student – move between bones and books, archives and madness, as they try to reconcile the past with the now.

The production is brought together by what Davids refers to as a “theatrical dream team”, with direction and original choreography by Jay Pather and starring Denise Newman, Faniswa Yisa, Shaun Oelf and Buhle Ngaba.

“I’ve always admired Jay Pather’s work; the seamless, yet provocative way he forges connections and relationships between landscapes, the body, place and agency. I am thrilled that he agreed to collaborate on this text-based play, to bring it to life in his signature style and create a truly unique piece of theatre. It’s a privilege too, to see the work performed by the actors and actresses too, who are all incredible, captivating performers, who work deeply and sensitively with the material,” Davids says.

Pather says Davids’s writing “vividly transports us through multiple times and spaces, capturing the vertigo that characterises living in South Africa today”.

Davids says writing is a tough profession, “particularly for women”, but it is something she always returns to.

“As a writer, I’m a bit of strange amalgam because I write fiction but also work in theatre. The one is solitary and the other is collaborative. I try to have seasons for both: I love working alone for long periods on one piece but theatre, with it’s immediacy and the chance to work with other artists, is also very important to me.”

What Remains will be performed from Thursday July 6 to Wednesday July 12 starting at 8pm, with a matinee on Saturday July 8 starting at 2pm and a performance on Sunday July 9 starting at 6pm at the Hiddingh Hall campus in Orange Street, Cape Town. Seating is limited so booking is essential. Tickets cost R120 and can be booked at Webtickets.