Veteran actress Dame Janet Suzman has been criticised for her ignorant and racist comments about the nature of theatre and theatre goers.
The South African, who was made a dame in 2012, this week stated that black people do not go to the theatre because, theatre is a ‘white’ invention for ‘white’ people.
“Theatre is a white invention, a European invention, and white people go to it. It’s in their DNA. It starts with Shakespeare,” she boldly stated despite the fact that the theatrical traditions of both Africa and Asia go back thousands of years.
The ancient Egyptians for example, put on plays as early as 2000 BC, depicting the stories of their various Gods and Goddesses at yearly festivals.
Research by Joel Adedeji also revealed that the Yoruba people of Nigeria, have theatrical traditions linked to the ‘mascarades of Egugun’, and have been performing on stage as early as the 16th century, around the same time as Shakespeare himself.
“Fair’s fair. Theatre is a totally European invention, as is tragedy. Other countries don’t do tragedy. It’s an invention by the Greeks,” she continued, citing the fact that only one black person attended one of her recent production in which she starred alongside a black actor, as the reason for her proclamation.
Her comments, which come after Asian-British actress Meera Syle stated that British theatre is neglecting minority audiences, received much criticism and backlash from several industry giants including Booker Prize winning author and former national theatre board member, Ben Okri.
“She’s ill informed about the very old traditions of African and Indian cultures which go back thousands of years,” Okri said of Suzman.
“It’s sad that she thinks that.”
Syman also responded to Suzman’s comments saying:
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard any single race or culture claim theatre as their invention before. “The sharing of stories between performers and audience stretches across every single civilisation beginning with the oral tradition of re-enacting folk tales or religious myths, graduating into more formalised forms of structured staging.
“But this shouldn’t be an argument about what theatre is or who ‘invented’ it. This is a more profound discussion about the relevance of the stories we tell and for whom we tell them.”
The fact that Suzman herself has fought for the rights of black people in South Africa and is the niece of anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, only make her comments more surprising.