Internationally acclaimed South African actor Tony Bonani Miyambo will perform the U.S. debut of his one-man show Red Peter’s Way Out this weekend at the Oakland Winter Live festival. The performance piece is based on the Franz Kafka short story A Report to an Academy, in which Red Peter, an ape from the Gold Coast, is captured, caged, and placed on ship to Germany. As a way out (and a “way out” is not to be confused with release), he learns to behave as a human would, to the point that he no longer remembers his previous life. Kafka’s story is often considered to be an exploration of freedom and (or versus) identity, as such literary critics have often pointed out resonances with slave narratives, religious and cultural assimilation experiences, colonialism, and (as explored in Red Peter’s Way Out) South African apartheid. Tony Bonani Miyambo talked to Arts in Color about Red Peter’s Way Out and his own experiences as Johannesburg-based performer.
Arts in Color: Please tell us a little about your background. Where are you from? How and when you did you first get involved in theatre? What have been some of your formative experiences as an artist?
Tony Bonani Miyambo: I am from a township called Tembisa in Johannesburg, South Africa. I got involved in theatre at high school as an extra-curricular activity. I then went on to pursue a degree in dramatic arts at the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. The last four years have been a breakthrough for my career as a young artist. In 2014 I won the Brett Golden award to study with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford Upon Avon, England. I then went on to win the Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award at the 2015 National Arts Festival for my one man show Kafka’s Ape (Red Peter’s Way Out). In the same year my other one man show The Cenotaph of Dan Wa Moriri debuted as part of the main solo festival. Both plays have gone on to receive rave reviews and continued success. Kafka’s Ape was nominated for a Naledi award and recently returned from a run at the Amsterdam Fringe festival as one two shows that were the official South African selections from the NAF fringe. The Cenotaph has had successful seasons at the Playhouse theatre in Durban and the Market theatre in Johannesburg.
AiC: What is the theatre scene like in Johannesburg and how does it compare to your experiences in the US?
TBM: It is my first time in the States so I don’t have many comparisons to draw, but the South African theatre industry is evolving. For me the heart of theatre in Johannesburg lives in fringe spaces that champion new experimental work like The Wits Theatre, The Platform, The Olive Tree Theatre, The Alexander Bar Theatre, The Centre for the Less Good Idea and PopArt. Theatre makers are no longer waiting on or depending on mainstream theatres to create and showcase new exciting work and that is inspiring.
AiC: Can you tell us a bit about Red Peter’s Way Out and what the process of adapting and performing it has been so far?
TBM: The piece was originally conceived and directed by the talented Phala Ookeditse Phala towards his Masters at the Witwatersrand University in 2011. I was very young when I was cast in the piece and the initial focus was to get the physicality of the Ape right. However having the time to craft the piece over the years has allowed that impulse to evolve towards finding a balance between nuanced interpretation and delivery of the text alongside that physicality. That understanding has come from unpacking issues of identity within a complex South African socio-economic context to use in the layering of meaning within the piece.
AiC: How does the version of Red Peter’s Way Out that you performed in South Africa differ from the one that will be performed in Oakland?
TBM: Well, I will be performing an extended extract of the piece for the festival with new audiovisual elements that I hope will create a dialogue about the policing of black identity in the South African apartheid and American contemporary contexts.
AiC: Why should people go see Red Peter’s Way Out?
TBM: Red Peter the ape’s story is our story, and there are few occasions where a performance can tap into the deep emotion of storytelling and ideas to make the audience prickle with feeling and tears. This play does that.
AiC: Where and when can they see it?
TBM: On the 8th and 9th December at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.
AiC: What else can you tell us about Oakland Winter Live?
TBM: The best of everything: Music, Film, Theatre and Dance. Definitely the place to be.
AiC: Arts in Color is a website highlighting and supporting diversity in the arts. We ask all our interviewees: What does it mean to you to be an artist of color?
TBM: Theatre is my voice, my opportunity to tell and hear stories, to make sense of who and where I am in the world and what that means for my past, present and future. My color is my context and the purview that shapes my understanding of the world and ultimately the stories that I tell.
AiC: Are there any other upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?
TBM: Kafka’s Ape [the full-length version of Red Peter’s Way Out] will be performed in Chicago next year at the Northwestern University Evanston campus in early February next year and I hope to bring more work back to Oakland in the near future.
AiC: How can people follow you on social media?
TBM: People can search me on all platforms using my full name, Tony Bonani Miyambo.
See Tony Bonani Miyambo in Red Peter’s Way Out at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in downtown Oakland Tickets are available at: https://oaklandwinterlive.brownpapertickets.com