Life’s stories on stage

KAREN KOTZE

Peter Voges has swapped the notes of his piano, for those scribbled in the margin; as a playwright.

This at the age of 79. This, is re-invention. This is the ambrosial culmination of creativity.

“Everything has a story,” Peter says. And as a newfound, but fervent raconteur, the Fish Hoek resident is now penning into being the voices, and life stories, of what he warmly calls “his people”.

The voices are clear, and they carry their truths, unapologetically.

He tells their stories as he does his own. The poetry is in the aching honesty, and what he describes as “an outrageous disposition” inherited from his family.

Except; what started as resilience has since been honed into a shine about this man’s eyes.

“You don’t just start writing plays at 79,” he laughs…

Unless of course, you are Peter Voges, and then you do – and you write Henrietta With Love, and Lee-Ann van Rooi breathes it to life on stage at the Artscape, and the hushed audience is seen dabbing glistening eyes…

Henrietta, with Love is a raw and fearless insight into the lives of a community – Alicedale in Athlone – when their men returned from “up North”. The men, shell-shocked after exposure to and being engaged in savage warfare, arrive home: with no counselling. It is a one-woman play, and it is one story, but it speaks for generations of families who have been ravaged by the effects of this.

This was Peter’s debut.

Another play, One for the Road, is already written, and its inspiration played out right in front of Peter as he was standing on his stoep, in Fish Hoek.

“I heard this desperate screaming, and there she came running, obviously having been beaten black and blue, just covered in blood… and this got to me. I heard this happened at the hands of her obsessive boyfriend. So I fashioned the story about a woman leading a double life: perfectly confident at work in the day, but who faces this at night.”

Peter’s story follows the woman’s coping mechanism: which is to drink – and then leads the audience through the obvious, but also the unseen mess of her life.

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He illustrates the metaphorical mess of her life by what he describes as a stompie cemetery in its midst, and the two little mice who come out every night while she is collapsed from a night’s drinking, and nibble away at her untouched take-aways.

There’s much more to those mice, but you will have to watch the play to find out exactly what.

It is also not maudlin, real maybe, but there are scenes he described that had me cackling with delight – particularly his description of a woman whose swing of a pick-axe handle meets its target with “unerring aim”, and the Serena Williams action of a heavy-based frying pan. Our laughter is pure and simple recognition of the jester’s duality.

But this is Peter Voges, and giving a previously beaten woman a victory through his play is not enough. He wants it to extend to real people, because this is their story, too. “I want to find an under-resourced women’s shelter, and highlight them when the play is performed. Boards up with stories and photos in the foyer. Not because I want to tell people what to do, but simply to allow them their own choices,” he says.

The next play to grace the Artscape, Aunty always said, is due to take to the stage on his 80th birthday, October 11 this year. Again, he hopes to highlight an under-resourced retirement home along with this play.

Aunty always said encapsulates the terrific tragedies experienced by a woman just named Aunty, but whose stories will prick tender nerves in many families, war, rations, elections, and personal life stories of the forced removals of District Six. It also includes the uncomfortable truth of how the elderly are discriminated against.

Peter tells of his own four year heartache, in nursing his father who had Parkinson’s Disease, but was mis-diagnosed. “He was injected with cortisone into his joints, and it made him go spastic. It was horrific. I was the only one who understood him,” Peter said.

Aunty lived over the road and suffered from degenerative senility in her laters years, and she would tell Peter stories of her own father, Johannes, who was a freed slave, a stone mason and had a horse and cart business.

In fact, Aunty’s father was a stonemason who built what was then called The South African College in Orange Street, Cape Town- which now houses part of the UCT drama department. The play promises to be powerful.

At 10 years of age, Peter was exposed to the arts: drama, ballet, theatre, music… and the course of his life changed to what he describes as a alternative education. He spent eight years at the College of Music, immersing fully in this world from the age of 14.

“It settles in you, and you grow inside,” he says, of this training.

Piano became a primary language to him, and because the women in his family were “impossibly magnificent seamstresses” – working at The Little Theatre Costume Shop – they opened the back doors to the theatre world, actors and actresses and all their fine costumes.

His great love was piano but he tried everything; this in itself an approach for lifelong renewal of self, and Peter knows this. In 1962 he was the King in the Sleeping Beauty ballet – even though he wasn’t ostensibly a dancer. Proof of this is framed on his lounge wall.

Peter opened to the world and tried as many roles as he could in between teaching alongside Richard Reeves, and taking up an alternative approach to teaching second language speakers about Shakespeare. This led him to the Grahamstown Festival and there he was asked to serve on the Festival committee, and given the portfolio of student theatre which included the student festival which he described as “very white, very European and very competitive”.

In 1990 Peter changed the dynamics of the student festival by declaring that the plays presented needed to be self-written, in all the languages spoken in the country, opening the door to all. This changed the face of the festival forever.

He also served on the Fleur du Cap theatre awards panel and was invited to adjudicate for the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuur Vereeniging (ATKV).

He includes this day as one among many firsts for him – and “his people”.

“When I walked through the front door of that school in Stellenbosch as part of the AKTV, there was groot skande. Coloured people only ever went in the back doors, and then, they were cleaning staff, not some-body in a collar and tie with a hairstyle,” he grinned.

The lone tea cup set at the furtherest end of a long table, for him, and the fact that when he stood to speak, not a single person in the full hall looked at him, are two memories that shaped this experience for Peter.

His whole life he has been asked to define or explain himself, why he appears “Coloured” but does not sound that way, why he speaks like he does, looks like he does, believes what he does.

And his whole life through, he has answered through his teaching and his music.

And now at 79, Peter has found a new way to answer that question, a fresh way to be heard.

And he is answering not only for himself, but for all the previously silenced voices of his people.