A theatre production designed to promote inter-racial harmony in South Africa has been hit by recriminations over an onstage kiss between a white and a black actor.
Carolyn Forword walked out of a production of The Pied Piper of Hamelin after being directed to kiss fellow cast member Unathi Dyantyi repeatedly on the lips.
Forword, 22, argues that the kissing was not suitable for the touring production’s audiences of young children. Dyantyi counters that her description of the kiss as “unhygienic” was racially motivated, an allegation she vehemently denies.
The row engulfing The Pied Piper, which has three white actors and one black, has underlined how even the apparently liberal arts are not immune to South Africa’s ongoing sensitivities around race.
Dyantyi, 28, said Forword pushed him away and shrank from kissing him during performances of the play. “I felt like a piece of shit every time we had to do it because of the way she treated me,” he said. “She didn’t want to kiss me. She said she found it unnecessary and the kiss was unhygienic.”
“I’m speechless. What’s unhygienic about the kiss? And what’s unnecessary about it? It is necessary for what the director is aiming to do. He’s trying to convey a message that it’s OK for different cultures to fall in love. We’re a multicultural country and we’re trying to convey that.”
The Riverside Theatre Company, based in Cape Town, had hoped to take The Pied Piper to Forword’s former school, but she apparently objected. Dyantyi added: “I gathered she didn’t want her parents to see their kid being kissed by a black dude.”
“She’s been trained as an actress at drama school, yet she has a problem with kissing. This has never happened to me before. There is still racism in South African theatre today, but it’s very subtle.”
Forword withdrew after 12 performances of The Pied Piper, leaving another actor to take over the remaining 50 shows. She adamantly denies the accusations of racism, which first appeared in the Sowetan newspaper.
“It is a play for eight-year-olds,” she said. “They wanted me to kiss the guy for 20 seconds, which is inappropriate for that audience. It wouldn’t have gone down well at a Catholic school, for example. It would have been unhygienic because it was a travelling show. I pulled out because the director never gave my agent an idea of where we were staying. It had nothing to do with the kissing thing. But now I’m seen as a racist.”
The play’s director, Leslie Ehrhardt, supported Dyantyi’s account. “Without a doubt there was a racial element from the word go until the very end,” he said. “Carolyn underlined it with her general behaviour towards Unathi. She pushed him away and her face was screwed up, as if kissing him was the worst thing in the world.
“She said to me in rehearsals that her doctor told her it was unhygienic to kiss on the stage. That took me by surprise. When we going to her old school, she said it would not go down well with her people, or words to that effect.”
Ehrhardt, 42, added: “It’s a horrible situation. It undermines what people did here in the 60s, 70s and 80s in using theatre to challenge apartheid. Racism isn’t significant in South African theatre and we shouldn’t be talking about it.
“South Africa is 15 years into its new democracy. This lady is 22 and she would have been brought up in a different way from me and others of my age and older. I was really shocked about what happened.”
Forword has made a series of complaints against Ehrhardt over issues such as living conditions, transport and what she termed his “inappropriate behaviour”.