The irony of being a black man and playing an ape in the current dispensation is not lost on actor Tony Miyambo, writes ITUMELENG MOLEFI. To his knowledge, he is only the second black actor to play the role of Red Peter the ape.
This is not surprising because historically, black Africans have been referred to as animals as a way to insult and dehumanise us. There was even a time when Black Africans were put in zoos for the pleasure of white people. This was all in an attempt to dismiss our humanity.
If one examines all the racist incidents that have taken place in South Africa over the past few years, one sees that this attempt at dehumanising black people continues. We know that derogatory terms are still used to refer to us in private conversations. We know this because every now and again, words like kaffir and hot-not accidentally slip out of white mouths. And every so often, white people like Penny Sparrow will publicly call us monkeys or a multinational corporation like H&M will release an ad where a black child wears a sweater referring to him as the “coolest monkey in the jungle”.
All of this context is not lost on Miyambo and writer-director Phala O. Phala, the duo responsible for the innovative tour de force that is Kafka’s Ape. Based on Franz Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy, Kafka’s Ape is a one-man play about an ape, Red Peter (played with dignity and compassion by Miyambo), who has learnt to be human and has been asked by an academy to give humans insight into the nature of apes.
From the very beginning, Red Peter tells the academy–the audience–that “to survive, [he] had to cease being an ape.” And as a result, he cannot really tell us what it is like. Later in the show he tells us that the language of humans fails to truly capture the experiences he has had. This is accompanied by moments where he has to police some of the behaviour that will confirm to the world that he is just an ape, something we know he has had to do for years in order to gain some kind of acceptance in human society.
A number of reviewers of the original short story (as well as a number of white reviewers of the show and, I suspect, white audience members) see Kafka’s Ape as a meditation on what it means to be human. For me, this is an obvious interpretation: Red Peter talks about so many things that we have all (at some or other point in our lives) had to make peace with because these are the things society uses to confine and limit us. Only those brave enough to go against the tide manage to see a glimpse of the “way out, not freedom” that Red Peter kept referencing.
In my opinion, this is an interpretation based on a privileged perspective. This show resonated so much with me and my black friends when we went to see it on the first day of its two-day run at the POPArt Theatre, we bought tickets for the second show and brought more black people with us to experience it again.
The reason for this resonance was because we saw ourselves in Red Peter. When he talked of having to learn human speech in order to perform in the concert hall instead of the zoo, we saw ourselves having to master English in order to get a supposedly better education and build supposedly better lives than the ones our parents had. When he spoke of learning to imitate humans in order to find “a way out”, we saw ourselves having to assimilate western culture in order to gain access to some of the privilege our white counterparts grew up with. And when he told the audience that “representing ape-like feelings with human words misrepresented them”, we saw ourselves struggling to access the vocabulary of representing our struggles in a world that chooses not to see our humanity.
Sitting in the audience for those two nights, I could not help but think of what Jordan Peele refers to as the “sunken place” in his seminal film Get Out. Peele commented that for him “the sunken place is a metaphor for the system that is suppressing the freedom of black people, of many outsiders, and minorities.” It speaks to how we get silenced when we do finally make it to white spaces and criticise these systems of oppression. Experiencing Kafka’s Ape is like sitting in a master class about the sunken place.
Unfortunately, the show has completed its very short run in Johannesburg. Many of us hope that it will return soon for a longer run and at a bigger venue. It will be heading to Chicago on 02 February and will run in Cape Town at Alexander Bar, Cafe and Theatre from 5 to 17 February.
Itumeleng Molefi is a former science teacher and currently studies African literature at Wits University. Follow him on Twitter @itu_molefi.