On the eve of South Africa’s Heritage Day, the American folk opera Porgy & Bess was the top billing at Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre, and complimentary tickets had been waved under my nose - so off we went.
The opera was a moderate success: a cast of rather unwieldy proportions (thirty players onstage during the big scenes? forty?) drove home the central point that life is fickle with gusto, and carried off a few of the numbers in gripping style. Although Sportin’ Life (Marcus Desando) didn’t quite have the pipes for “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, he certainly had the wickedness of heart, and was great fun to watch; Clara (Philisa Sibeko) was pure pathos during her reprise of “Summertime”, sung against the winds of the hurricane that had claimed her husband; and Porgy (Leonard Rowe, a last-minute replacement for Otto Maidi) was a Siberian husky of a cripple, belting out his numbers and panting so happily afterwards that you almost looked for a tail.
One of the more interesting aspects of opera in Cape Town, of course, is that it is largely performed by members of the city’s Xhosa-speaking community, which is reknowned for its vocal prowess. (Attend any Sunday service in the township of, say, Guguletu, to see what I mean - or just ask the actress Juliette Binoche: when she was taken to JL Zwane Presbyterian a few years ago, she dialled France from her cellphone so tout le monde could hear the hymns.) Cape audiences, meanwhile, have developed a taste for musicals of the American South - we’ve seen Treemonisha recently, and Show Boat not so long ago - and have thus encouraged an economics of performance that is slightly bizarre: all-black casts sing black-inspired American music in front of nearly-all-white audiences at the tip of Africa.
In this context, it was quite fascinating to note a scene in Porgy & Bess that emphasized a cultural and economic practice that black America and black South Africa seem hold in common (though possibly not coterminously - the opera is, after all, set in a USA of many decades ago). In Act I, after Crown kills Robbins, the denizens of Catfish Row are urged, in song, to “fill up the saucer” resting on the dead man’s body, so his widow can afford to bury him. Robbins had never joined a burial society, preferring to gamble his wages away - now who would pay for the coffin, the plot of land, the gravediggers necessary to give him a decent Christian send off? If Serena can’t come up with $25, Robbins’ body will be carved up by medical students. It cos’ money for to bury a man.
South Africans know this all too well, for burial societies are a common feature of contemporary black life here. In fact, they run rampant, in part because funerals are highly public, culturally complicated affairs. At bottom, the “societies” are nothing more than life insurance companies with decidedly higher profit margins and lower payouts than the traditional kind. As a member of one, you pay a comparatively low premium each month, and when you die, a small payout takes care of the disposal of your body. Depending on your policy, you can get death with all the fixins: a brass band, a tent for the mourners, catering equipment and service - even, in the words of one society’s advertisement, an ox, for slaughtering on the day. It’s important to exhibit sensitivity to the living after you’ve passed on: if you want to be remembered properly, there must be a show.
South African burial societies kit themselves out to the hilt in the language of sympathy and concern, but boil this off and like as not you’ll find a simple, wealthy profiteer - who has enjoyed particularly macabre success in the last ten years, thanks to the AIDS pandemic. It’s true that a number of societies are stokvels (savings associations), which are much more fairly run than the companies, but the companies enjoy a major chunk of the market share. One of the biggest is AVBOB, which coincidentally owns the largest funeral goods wholesaler in the country. It costs quite a bit more than $25, nowadays, to get a decent burial - even at current exchange rates!
The scene around Robbins’ corpse made me think that the Cape Town Opera had missed a trick, in sticking with a traditional staging of the show. Porgy & Bess could well be set in Guguletu, after the fashion of the hugely successful film u-Carmen eKhayelitsha. It wouldn’t have been amiss in the run up to Heritage Day. What’s the Xhosa for Come on, sister, come on, brudder / Fill up de saucer till it overflow - ?