Donna Walker-Kuhne's unforgettable journey to South Africa with Dance Theatre of Harlem
Following the recent death of world leader Nelson Mandela, Donna Walker-Kuhne, NJPAC’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications (pictured below), reflected on an impactful trip she made to South Africa in the wake of apartheid. Hired as a publicist by Dance Theatre of Harlem, she helped pave the way for DTH to become the first American company to perform in South Africa after the abolishment of the 30-year cultural ban.
In her book, Invitation to the Party: Building Bridges to the Arts, Culture and Community (Theatre Communications Group) Walker-Kuhne tells of her journey, excerpted here. The author is looking forward to a reunion with DTH when it performs during the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration at NJPAC on Jan. 17.
The Healing Power of Art in South Africa
It took two years of negotiations, but on September 1, 1992, DTH arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa. The company had been invited to perform at the reopening of the newly renovated Civic Theatre, an internationally recognized venue for touring productions from around the world. … (DTH founder Arthur Mitchell) insisted that there be an integrated technical crew and that the audience be integrated with black South Africans, which would be a first for the Civic Theatre. He also insisted that the presenters help sponsor outreach activities to black South African schools in the townships.
Three months before the opening, I was dispatched to Johannesburg to work with the presenters to set up the publicity campaign. Had I really thought about the political climate and what kind of resistance I might encounter because I’m African American, I might have declined. Instead, I saw it as another opportunity to do audience development work, another opportunity to learn something new. In preparation for my trip, I gathered several gifts from DTH – jackets, sweatshirts and caps. I learned long ago that giving gifts (when the act is sincere) is a great way to break the ice.
My first meeting at the theatre to plan the campaign for the DTH tour was with twenty-two white South Africans who were involved in various aspects of marketing the tour. When I walked into the room, I immediately sensed tremendous hostility and discomfort. Even though I believed their feelings stemmed from their misguided views about blacks (whom generations of white South Africans had been taught were inferior), I refused to let it get in the way of the important work I knew I was there to do. I realized that their country was changing quickly, and that the culture of apartheid was being challenged not only by the release of Mr. Mandela, but also by the performance of DTH and the terms of our contract requiring integrated audiences. However, I truly believed then, as I still do, that the healing powers of the arts are unparalleled.
When everybody was quiet and settled, I took a deep breath and smiled. I was determined that we establish a level of mutual respect, that we work together to ensure that the DTH tour was a success. As I passed out the DTH gifts, the people in the room began to relax, and it was easier to move forward. By the end of my week of preparation, the presenters were enthusiastically engaged in the marketing campaign and had hired a black South African advertising agency to design the posters and flyers. Even the white South African secretaries who initially ignored me were asking to fax or type up my notes and serving me tea.
Later on, we would discover one major obstacle in accomplishing our goal of integrating the audiences for the evening performances. Black South Africans were required by law to be in their homes by ten every night. That meant they could come to matinees but not to evening performances. The performance times had already been set and could not be changed to allow for an earlier curtain, and we could not alter the law in the short period of time remaining. So rather than excluding black South Africans from our show, we created more than 250 outreach activities and took our show directly into the townships.
With the assistance of local dance companies … DTH members taught classes in vacant lots, in front yards or in community centers. (Whenever we met children, we danced for them!) All of our staff got involved – our tech crew held workshops on sound and lighting, our musicians held workshops on musical scoring, and members of our board of directors, who had accompanied the dancers on tour, held workshops on development issues. I presented a workshop on developing marketing strategies for the staff at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, because apartheid had limited black South African access to current information and resources.
The full impact of my efforts in South Africa hit me at the very end of my trip, when the sponsor gave me a tour of the Civic Theatre, where the stage was being readied for DTH’s arrival. As I entered the stage, the black workmen, one by one, put down their tools, stood up and stared at me. “Do you know what they are doing?” my white escort asked.
“No,” I replied, trying not to feel self-conscious as the ten men stared at me without speaking or smiling.
“They are paying homage to you,” my escort explained. “They are honoring you. You are the first black person to enter this theatre who is free, not a worker, but an individual.”
When Nelson Mandela, then president of the African National Congress, attended the opening performance, he met with the dancers at a reception. They were deeply touched by his comments:
It is occasions like this that make us forget about the hard knocks which we continue to receive in life. … We have forgotten about all those problems tonight because Dance Theatre of Harlem has taught us lessons which are more significant than a group of artists coming to our country and performing. … As I look at them, I am reminded of the words of a poet who said: “In the rough marble, beauty hides unseen – in the still air, music lays unheard.” There is nothing rough about them; there is only beauty. At least for a few hours tonight, we were able to forget all these things, and we were transported on a wave of happiness, which has put us in peace with the entire world.