There are two constants in life. The last conversation you have with someone, and the last call you didn’t take – or make.
In the past two weeks alone I have lost three really good people – one family member, two dear friends. The news of one of these came to me late; the death of Fish Hoek playwright Peter Voges.
Peter was one of the people whose larger-than-life presence gave the impression that he would always be there. “I’m old as dust,” he laughed once. But what he really was, was overflowing with a creative rush.
In 2016, at 79 years of age, he swopped the notes of his piano for a new career as a playwright.
The words had tumbled through his head his whole life. He had turned them to music and art; and now, while he still could, he wanted to write them. He levelled a particular look at me. “To exorcise them, maybe?” he said slowly.
If he spoke with a love for what words convey, he certainly wrote that way. His plays were about his people, he said. And there is little as powerful as an untold story that aches to be told. “Everything has a story,” he told me. “And every one …”
He spoke about his family, and his mother’s career as an impossibly magnificent seamstress – “a dressmaker to the stars” – being the gateway that opened his life to a world removed from his peers, to theatre, to the theatre of life.
He spoke about the strange alienation, but beautiful experience, of being educated at the College of Music, which set him aside from most of his peers. “It settles in you. And you grow, inside,” he said.
Peter’s life was playing piano, he danced, he took to the stage and at 79, he began producing work for the stage. Few people live this. Few people are driven with this irrepressible love of all aspects of what it takes to be alive. Fewer still are able to convey it in as many ways.
He taught alongside poet Richard Rive, he taught second language speakers Shakespeare.
“What hilarity,” he hooted. He was – in his own words – the first coloured man to serve on the Grahamstown Festival Committee. His portfolio was student theatre, so he did the most grand thing he could muster in beautiful defiance: he opened up student plays to all the languages in South Africa.
He whooped when telling this; delight glinting all over his face in ways Twilight fans could properly appreciate.
Peter shared much of his joys with me over hot coffee and the world’s most delicious baked goods, made by his partner David.
Alongside these successes, were the welts which he had covered most of his life. The thoughtlessness of others. All the extra he had to do to simply be granted acceptance in a racially divided society. All the angst he was witness to in families which so often split down the lightness or darkness of their skin. “Some of those were lighter skinned than you, some of them got reclassified and skipped the country. This kind of thing separated families forever,” he said.
The plays Peter wrote were passionate and detailed observations of the machinations of relationships through his years. He was, in his writing, scythe sharp. He told real stories. He told the stories of his people, but more than that, he told the stories of all our people. And he lived as an example to all. Peter took those calls. And he made them.
In 2018 he was awarded the Nelson Mandela Flame Award for the best contribution to the Literary Arts, including poetry, prose and playwriting by the Western Cape Department of Arts and Culture.
He was brave, he was kind, he was funny. He was unique. And he will live on in the stories he left behind, and in the flame he lit in the hearts of the people he met along the way.
Peter’s funeral service will take place on Saturday May 25 at St Margaret of Antioch Anglican Church in Fish Hoek at 11am.