Bitter Milk

“Bitter Milk” was produced in February 1983 by Temba Theatre Co. It opened at The Drill Hall in London and then toured nationally

My first commission proved to be a salutary lesson for me both about the drawbacks of collaboration and venturing into territories where I was ill-prepared to deal with the undercurrents.

I was approached by Alton Kumalo, the founder of Temba Theatre Co, after the success of In Kanada . He wanted to commission a play to celebrate Temba’s 10th anniversary. The basic idea for the play was his and probably autobiographical: a story about an exiled black South African who doesn’t want to marry his West Indian girlfriend because she has had a child with another man. Why? Well, for the usual reasons but also because the man is a Zulu and it is against his cultural tradition. He arranges instead to marry another exiled white South African for her passport but cannot go through with it. She comes to look for him and meets his girlfriend who gets the wrong idea about their relationship.

I had recently read the book ‘Black Macho’ by Michele Wallace and I was fascinated by the way sexual politics and the struggle for black emancipation interacted. I identified with Alton’s sense of exile and I was very interested in the paradoxical nature of relationships between black and white people as a source for dramatic exploration.

From this impetus, came the triangular shape of the play as a three-hander with – as I saw it –  a nexus made up of three pairs: two women and a man, two black people and a white person, two South African exiles and a British outsider.

It was a not unpromising basis for a play. Unfortunately, both the development of the script and the rehearsal process were beset with tensions and misunderstandings. The play desperately needed rewriting and cutting but the working environment became so toxic that I just wanted to escape. (It did not help that my partner was playing one of the parts which further compromised me.) On the opening night, the entire cast resigned from taking part in the tour; which gives you some idea of the level of unhappiness. The play toured in a heavily cut version and was then consigned to the best-forgotten.

Alton Kumalo has now sadly died. I respected him and was grateful for the commission but he was a complex man with a volatile personality and collaborating with him was not always a happy experience. Despite that, it was an important learning curve and made me even more determined to write a play about Africa from my own perspective.

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