Van Wyk, The Storyteller of Riverlea based on the life of late writer, political activist and poet, Chris Van Wyk which has just ended at the Market Theatre is a deceptively brilliant piece of theatre. Whilst the production pays homage to arguably one the Johannesburg suburb’s greatest ever sons and his indelible impact within the world of literature, it does much more than that in the way it immortalises the surburb and the people who lived in it then and those who still do to this day.
Furthermore, by humanising and paying homage to this community, their resilience and resolve to insist on defining themselves in the face of the murderous Apartheid machinery – it is a play about love, the love between Chris and his wife, Shirley for whom he partly-named his first and most successful book, ‘Shirley, Goodness and Mercy : A Childhood in Africa’ (which is a clever word-play of the biblical verse Psalms 23 v 6, Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever).
Chris Van Wyk is played by veteran television actor Zane Meas famous for his roles as ‘Neville Meintjies’ in the soapie 7de Laan and as ‘Jack van Onselen’ in Isidingo among his many other roles in a career spanning over 30 years.
Coincidentally, Zane was also born in Riverlea which is the suburb where much of the production and the famous book is set. In fact, Zane Meas in one interview with another publication goes as far as stating that he knew Chris Van Wyk and had met him sometime when he was in high school which is how his own love for stories and acting was cemented. In essence Chris Van Wyk being played by Zane Meas is a virtual no-brainer and he does do a good job in portraying this larger than life figure who was a thorn in Aparheid’s flesh in how he used his pen to highlight atrocities. One of those for which Chris Van Wyk was known for is the dark poem ‘In Detention’ which brings to focus suspicious deaths of political activists at the hands of the then Apartheid police services.
As a writer, Chris Van Wyk was influenced by a great number of African and many other writers from all over the world and the fact that when the play opens one finds hanging on strings on the stage copies of important African books such as Ayi Kwei Armah’s ‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’ published in 1968, Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ published in 1958, Es’kia Mphahlele’s ‘Down Second Avenue’ published in 1959 (among many others) are a testament to his greater awareness of his role as a writer and the importance of telling authentic African stories.
Zane Meas manages in his unique way and deeply caring yet revealing way to portray Chris Van Wyk and in some ways bring him back to life on stage – furthermore, he paints quite vividly through his many years of acting experience the vibrant and eclectic Riverlea community and gives us glimpses into the personalities of the various characters who lived within it.
Photos by Lungelo Mbulwana
Van Wyk, The Storyteller of Riverlea, performed by Zane Meas and directed by Christo Davids will run at The Market Theatre from 13 November to 15 December 2019