The sounds of South Africa

Detail from the cover of the memoir by Edward Haynes.


ANYONE who has lived through the last years leading to the end of apartheid in South Africa, and who has an interest in local arts, particulary with reference to Durban and Johannesburg, is sure to find many rewards in The Sounds of South Africa, a newly published memoir from New York scenic designer Edward Haynes, who worked in South Africa for a decade.

From 1982 to 1992, Haynes and his South African Airways steward partner, Pieter, lived in South Africa, Haynes having moved there with his new South African partner after they met in New York.

During this time, Haynes worked on set and costume design contracts countrywide, including many with Durban’s Playhouse, and also taught technical and design requirements for stage scenery to students, which, he recalls, was soon moved from Gauteng’s Market Theatre to a university class room with drafting tables.

“All of the students had experienced some theatre in their townships. My memoir, The Sounds of South Africa, was inspired by this and other events, plus life with Pieter,’ says Haynes about his book, which is available for purchase at Amazon.

An easy and interesting read, the memoir documents a violent time in South Africa’s history, and the title is a quote from Pieter.

Upon hearing gunfire in the street outside his and Haynes’s apartment, in early 1990, shortly before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he said to Haynes: “Do you hear the sounds of Africa?”. It was a quote that reflected on Haynes’s remark years earlier, when referring to “the sounds of Africa” when he and Pieter visited a game reserve.

The moment of gunfire heard from their apartment had transpired at a time when Pieter had grown so seriously ill he was too weak to walk.  He had AIDS.

“We had watched the country slowly change during the 1980s, from full apartheid to an uncertain state of flux as one apartheid law after another was challenged and repealed, but our lives were centred on ourselves and Pieter’s illness,” writes Haynes.

“When he was not in the hospital or in doctors’ offices, he spent the days in our living room sofa.”

Haynes’s memoir relates mostly to his love, his work and his loss, as he reflects on he and Pieter having experienced financial difficulties with the economy failing as violence increased in South Africa. It was a time, Haynes recalls, when their future seemed uncertain, Pieter having experienced a bombing at the airport and a car bomb having exploded on a street near a theatre where the author had worked.

When Pieter became ill, Haynes hired an aide to assist him until Pieter’s death in 1991. Official documents became difficult. Government offices, he writes, became chaotic. Friends and a therapist helped the author, before his move back to New York.

Now retired, Haynes reflects on his website that many of his former students and assistants have gone on to successful careers in the theatre, including one who now works as a technician with Cirque du Soleil, exactly what she wanted. He takes great satisfaction in seeing his students thrive in this field.

Award-winning stage designer Edward Haynes.

Not only does The Sounds of Africa offer a gripping story of love and problems in a time of uncertainty and anxiety, but it is wonderful to read Hayne’s reflections on the South African arts scene of the time.

In Durban, working a lot with Murray McGibbon, the then head of drama at what is now the Playhouse Company, Haynes worked on such diverse productions as Carmina Burana, Superbike, La Boheme, The Barber of Seville, Hamlet, Salome, Faust, Turandot, The Flying Dutchman and 1992’s A Piece of My Heart, the last production McGibbon worked on before settling in the US.

Haynes also designed the set, costumes and lighting for a 1989 production of Shakespeare’s Richard III for the Playhouse stage, for which he won a Vita Award.

“Over the years, my work has evolved tremendously. My style has been described as conservative, and my work is characterised by realistic elements,” he recalls, writing on his website.

“Creating a compelling set is often difficult, but there is nothing like the satisfaction of seeing the finished product. Richard III was my most abstract work.”

Productions for which Haynes designed in Gauteng included The Importance of Being Earnest, The Prisoner of Second Avenue and Die Storm (The Tempest in Afrikaans), points out Murray McGibbon, who sent me a copy of the book to review.

Discussing earlier success, Haynes writes that his favourite project was doing scenic painting and design for a production of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, with Margot Fonteyn in the title role, which toured the Eastern and Southern United States.

He has also designed for the Harkness Ballet, the National Ballet and four American premieres of modern European operas, as well as for a number of off-Broadway plays and one Broadway musical.

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