The JRB presents an exclusive excerpt from Lewis Nkosi: The Black Psychiatrist | Flying Home: Texts, Perspectives, Homage. The book, published by Basler Afrika Bibliographen, is now available at all South African bookshops.
Lewis Nkosi: The Black Psychiatrist | Flying Home!: Texts, Perspectives, Homage
Astrid Starck-Adler, Dag Henrichsen (eds)
Basler Afrika Bibliographien, 2021
Join the editors, authors and publishers for the virtual launch of the book, with guest speakers including Zukiswa Wanner, Sandile Ngidi, Véronique Tadjo, Lucy Graham and Ben Williams, and a musical interlude by the Keenan Ahrends Trio courtesy of the bird’s eye jazz club Basel.
Hosted by the Basler Afrika Bibliographien & Centre for African Studies, University of Basel (Switzerland).
Details: Tuesday 22 June 2021, 18h15 (Central European Time / Central African Time) or 17h15 (GMT for the UK)
Contact email: email@example.com
Read the excerpt:
Lewis Nkosi writing Flying Home!
Excerpted from ‘Lewis Nkosi’s Airport Play Flying Home!’, from The Black Psychiatrist | Flying Home!: Texts, Perspectives, Homage.
After the first performance of Le psychiatre noir (The Black Psychiatrist) in Guadeloupe in 1997, Jean-Michel Martial told Lewis that the play was too short. ‘Never mind,’ Lewis answered, ‘I am going to write a sequel to The Black Psychiatrist.‘ This is how Flying Home! came into the world in 2000–2001.
The play is named after the emblematic jazz standard composed by the vertiginous master on vibes, Lionel Hampton(1). The title reflects both the return of exiled South Africans, the so-called returnees, and the name given to the plane carrying them home. The ‘action’ takes place in the bar of the Heathrow Airport Departure Lounge. There Dan Kerry, the black psychiatrist and member of the African National Congress (ANC), and Gloria Gresham, a white liberal South African and his half-sister and lover, are toasting the new independent South Africa; in a few hours they will attend the ceremonies in honour of ‘The Inauguration of President Mandela as the first president of a free and democratic South Africa’. Interestingly, they sit in a confined place, as in The Black Psychiatrist, but within an open space, a global hub for travels and passengers from all over the world.
Set in a post-apartheid time Flying Home! is as inventive, as deep and as sharp as The Black Psychiatrist, which was set during the apartheid era. I was fortunate enough to follow this work in progress. Now and then, Lewis would read to me humorous mischievous passages and burst out in his most memorable laughter: The Queen, ‘incognito like Madonna’, chatting in the loos with the Pakistani cleaning ladies at Heathrow Airport, the Queen addressing coded support messages to Mandela on Robben Island in her Xmas speeches! Old legends made new! Interludes that recall kings travelling unknown through their kingdom to hear what the ‘small people’ say and think. A playful way of focusing on serious social problems—the airport is a social space—or political events. These words are put into Gloria’s mouth, an actress, who, as the author, ‘live[s] entirely in a world of phantasy […]. A world of make-believe full of delightful Knights-in-errant, fairies, princes and princesses.’ Is this an intertextual nod to young Lewis?
‘What was happening under my eyes was filtered through the moral sieve provided by foreign literature. It was clear I was using literature as a form of escape; I was using it as a shield against a life of grim and deprivation. Those days all I needed to go galloping down the highway in search of a ‘white’ dragon was a high horse and a shining armor.'(2)
The event framing Flying Home—Mandela’s election—seems itself a fairy tale. So the sudden twist in the political speeches delivered for this occasion and projected onto the screen at Heathrow Airport has nothing surprising; through it shimmers the author’s irony. He uses the confusion of genres to depict the unhackneyed, unprecedented happenings amidst a movement of collective euphoria; through different fictional and non-fictional forms of storytelling and through contradictory images playing off one another and putting into question the speaker’s legitimacy, he points out the discrepancy between invented or rewritten history and what truly happened. At the same time, the life inside and outside the airport underlines the continuation of the struggle: outside, the National Front fighting and preventing South Africans from going home, inside Gloria Gresham and Dan Kerry ‘do battle during an insidious struggle over identity’.
- The most virtuoso performance took place at the Apollo Hall Concert. Link.
- L. Nkosi, ‘The Fabulous Decade: The Fifties’. In L. Nkosi (1983) Home and Exile. Harlow (2nd ed.), pp. 7–8.
- Astrid Starck-Adler is Professor Emerita of German and Yiddish Literature at both the Department of German and Jewish Studies, University of Basel (Switzerland) and the Université de Haute Alsace (Mulhouse, France).
Flying Home! A One-Act Play
Gloria: We’re returning home together, aren’t we, flying home, side by side, on the same plane, suitably named, I dare say, FLYING HOME.
Kerry: I told you yesterday, didn’t I, when we were packing, I explained it carefully to you. I warned you, I said I wanted it quite understood, you and I are returning separately.
Gloria: Separately? What do you mean we’re returning separately? We’re on the same flight, aren’t we? On a chartered aircraft named FLYING HOME.
Kerry: Of course. I know all that, but …
Gloria: Same flight, same destination.
Kerry: Same destination is not same destiny.
Gloria: What does that mean?
Kerry: [KERRY TRIES A BIT OF DIPLOMACY] To be honest with you, Gloria, I don’t know why you should even want to return. You’ve often spoken warmly of your love for England.
Gloria: I am a returnee, darling, like everyone else. That’s why.
Kerry: You’re not really … actually … a returnee!
Gloria: [OUTRAGED] Not a returnee! What are you talking about—not a returnee?
Kerry: Well, you never went away, really, did you? [PAUSE] If you know what I mean.
Gloria: No, I don’t know what you mean. I’m as much of a returnee as you are. Maybe even more than you, if I may say so.
Kerry: Oh, please.
Gloria: No ‘oh, please!’
Kerry: All I’m trying to point out as gently as I can is that you’re not exactly what is generally regarded as a ‘returnee,’ which is how you’d like to portray yourself.
Gloria: And you are? Can you, please, explain, what’s the difference?
Listen. You and I, we are marooned together at Heathrow Airport, aren’t we, about to return home?
Kerry: That’s what I am trying to explain. As I’ve said before, it’s not simply a matter of flying home, unfortunately. After all, through the years you’ve been able to come and go as you please. No questions asked. That’s the difference.
Gloria: That’s a vile piece of innuendo!
Kerry: Okay. Let me ask you this. How many times have you been back in South Africa since 1960?
Gloria: Several times. What’s that got to do with it? It was only for brief visits to see my parents.
Kerry: Did you enjoy your stay? Having the servants at your beck and call? Noonday swims at the pool before lunch?
Gloria: Enough of your sneering, Dan Kerry! [PAUSE] It so happens I didn’t enjoy it as much as all that. Sometimes it was incredibly boring, all those people wanting to talk about their visits to Great Britain. About Covent Garden and the West End plays they went to see, the shopping in Knightsbridge and tea at Harrods, or Fortnum and Mason as was then the rage. Honestly, it was all so boring! Typical provincial society!
Kerry: And you, of course, were so pleased to find people you could patronise, living, as you were, at the centre while they were living on what is sometimes called the margins?
Gloria: No. I was simply bored. But at least there was one person who was always happy to see me.
Kerry: Naturally, old man Baddock! You were always the apple of his eye, as I remember, weren’t you?
Gloria: No. Lily, as a matter of fact. She was the one always happy to see me. [REMINISCENTLY] Gloria, my sweet angel, she called me! You’re back. Oh, baby, how good to see you back in your own country! And she always cried, sweeping me into her arms. How beautiful you look, she’d say. Give us a hug and kiss, child. The first week she followed me around everywhere. She said seeing me on the farm reminded her of the good old days.
Kerry: Good old days!
Gloria: Yes. She’s the sweetest person I know. I’m not surprised my dad took to her.
Kerry: I keep telling you, my mother had little choice in the matter. [EXCHANGE GETS MORE AND MORE HOSTILE] Maybe, Gertrude should’ve taken more care of old Bad-Oak! Maybe Bad-Oak’d have stopped interfering with his female help the way he did.
Sometimes, I wonder: how could Bad-Oak have looked on, stood by and let it happen? How could he have watched while Gertrude carried on? All those comings and goings, all those frequent journeys to London, to the South of France, Lourenco Marques, Portugal—you name! I don’t know. She was never home. Always off to Johannesburg or Cape Town on her monthly shopping trips. Visits to her numerous paramours disguised as visits to friends and relatives, in and out of season!
Gloria: Lily helped, I suppose, didn’t she, for dad to be able to stand it. Stepped into the breach, as they say.
Kerry: Mother didn’t have to collude. Old Bad-Oak always had his way with house servants and you know it!
Gloria: Well, maybe, just maybe, Lily was not such an angel as you like to think.
My mother told me once that when Lily was young, when she first came to work on the farm, that was, she was quite little coquette, mother said, a real vamp! That was before she put on weight and sort of let things go. Mother said Lily used to strut it off before all the men, black or white. Sometimes there were words between them, mother said.
Kerry: Gloria, that’s a cock-and-bull story if ever there was one!
Gloria: Well, I believe my mother. Why would she lie about something like that?
Kerry: You know what Gertrude was like with the truth. Recognising the colour of truth, especially where servants were concerned, always gave her a little bit of trouble.
Gloria: That’s unjust. Maybe, just maybe, Lily was not such a saint. A nice woman, true, but not the saint you’re painting her out to be. When I was old enough to notice I used to watch Lily getting all dressed up for her trips to town on her day offs. In the servants’ quarters I noticed when she used to show off for the workers. Those skin-tight dresses and hats worn at a devastating angle! Long legs. A wasp-thin waist and a round solid bosom that would’ve put Greta Gable to shame! Something of a one-woman show she used to put on! I never tired of watching her. No wonder she turned the old man on!
Kerry: Old Bad-Oak abused his position.
Gloria: Your mind is closed on the subject.
Kerry: He took advantage.
Gloria: You hate having Arthur Baddock for a father, don’t you? You always call him Bad-Oak. You don’t seem to have any regard for your own father!
KERRY AND GLORIA RESUME THEIR DISPUTATION.
Kerry: And if you’re so pessimistic about the future, some people might wonder why you want to return.
Gloria: Why? I happen to be a South African, darling. I’m going back to claim my inheritance.
Kerry: Inheritance! What inheritance?
Gloria: The land. The farm. All revolutions are about land, darling, or haven’t you heard?
I’ve always been attached to the land. Maybe even more. attached to the land than you. Even though these days you often speak as if you have a natural claim to the land, if I rightly recall, you had no love for the farm; you were never as attached to the land as I or dad was. He struggled all his life to build up something, day in and day out I used to watch him pouring over his account books, pouring over figures, making plans, and all you could think of was how to run off to England and make your way in the great metropolis.
All in all, I think I am more my father’s daughter than you are his son.
Kerry: I like that! [KERRY IS OVERCOME] Now I’ve heard everything! Whose fault do you think it was I wanted to get off the farm and go to school in England?
Gloria: [SHE GOES INTO A KIND OF TRANCE] No one was more attached to the land than my father.
Kerry: Attached to the land! Your ancestors stole the land you’re all attached to.
Gloria: Never mind about what happened in the past. If it comes to that, as a ‘Coloured’ man you’re as linked to that inheritance as me. You’re mixed. My father is your father! So, stop patronising me!
Kerry: Gloria, I think you’re drunk! [ALSO SHOWING SIGNS OF INEBRIATION. HE TAKES ANOTHER SWIG AT THE CHAMPAGNE] That’s what it is. You’re getting all pickled! It’s the excitement. I am the only true South African!
KERRY STRETCHES HIS ARMS IN FRONT OF HIM AS IF ABOUT TO PASS OUT AT THE TABLE.
I have a double identity, a double inheritance!
Gloria: [SARDONICALLY] Oh, are we going to hear the great Mein Kampf speech again?
Kerry: [TRUCULENTLY] I have to celebrate the recovery of what is mine.
Gloria: And me?
Kerry: What about you?
Gloria: Where do I come in?
Kerry: I ‘m not just a South African. I’m AFRICAN.
Gloria: So am I, darling, if it comes to that.
Gloria: Yes, me. I’m as African as you are. Born and bred. I also want to celebrate.
Kerry: Listen, I have a British passport, haven’t I, but that doesn’t make me English. The best I can ever hope to be is British, not English. English is special, carries a charge! British does not. Too inclusive, like the British Commonwealth! I never wake up thinking, Oh, jolly good, I’m English!
PAUSE. KERRY LEANS BACK WITH A SMILE ON HIS FACE.
Once when I was holidaying in the south of France, struggling with my poor French, a sympathetic French woman said, ‘Ah, vous êtes Anglais?’ I couldn’t say, yes, I’m English. Britannique was a bit cumbersome but more honest. Do you ever think of yourself as an African? Do you wake up and say to yourself ‘OH, YEAH, I’M AN AFRICAN!’
Gloria: No. I do not wake up and say, YEAH, I’M AN AFRICAN. Neither do you!
Kerry: Maybe not. That’s because I take it for granted.
Gloria: There you are! But sometimes I wake up and think ‘I’M SOUTH AFRICAN’ because that’s what I am. So, whether you like it or not, Dan Kerry/Baddock, I’m also going back there to inherit the earth.
Kerry: The earth.
Gloria: Yes. My place in the sun.
Kerry: What place in the sun?
Gloria: My father’s farm, for a start. I mean to claim what’s mine before this beautiful man Mandela takes it all away!
Kerry: Is that so?
Gloria: Oh, yes. [SHE TOUCHES AN EXPENSIVE HANDBAG NEXT TO HER] In this bag I have all the papers I need if I’m required to prove ownership!
Kerry: Old man Joubert signed away the farm to his lily-white daughter, did he? Do I get any portion of that little inheritance?
Gloria: You are his bastard son. He never acknowledged you. I know it’s a little unfair, but there you are. In the eyes of the law you’re only the ‘Coloured’ son of a housemaid and a farm-hand: Lily Anna Louw and Kleinbooi Andrews Kerry, both employees of Arthur Baddock Farm, Koornhof, Eastern Cape.
Kerry: It’s my rotten luck, isn’t it?
Gloria: Yes, darling. Father made up the will a long time ago. He showed it to me. During my last visit just before he died. So I intend to take possession of that earthly inheritance.
Kerry: [VERY COLDLY] We’ll take it away.
Kerry: The Farm. The land. It doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the people.
Gloria: Oh, dear! The people. Hasn’t anyone told you? The time of the Soviets is long past.
Kerry: You see? Exactly what I was talking about a moment ago. People like you are not going to change overnight just because a new democratic government is in power. You’re going to try and cling on to all the remnants of privilege. Land is only the most crucial test.
Gloria: Don’t preach to me, Dan Kerry!
Kerry: White people must learn to give up a little of their ill-gotten wealth and privilege.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF MUCH DRINKING BOTH KERRY AND GLORIA HAVE PASSED THE STAGE OF REASONABLE EXCHANGE. THEIR FLIGHT IS ANNOUNCED OVER AND OVER ON THE PUBLIC ADDRESS SYSTEM: ‘DR.DAN KERRY; MRS.GLORIA GRESHAM, TWO PASSENGERS TRAVELLING TO JOHANNESBURG ON FLIGHT 1994. THIS IS THE LAST CALL. PLEASE PROCEED TO GATE FOR BOARDING!’ GLORIA GRESHAM AND DAN KERRY EITHER DO NOT HEAR THE CALL OR THEY IGNORE IT.
Kerry: This is what real change must mean. Give up all the loot.
Gloria: I have already! I’ve given you everything a woman can give.
Kerry: Don’t be absurd!
Gloria: I gave you my body, didn’t I? As a consolation for your loss of status and privilege and for all the lands for which you’ve developed such a despicable desire, all of a sudden.
Kerry: I don’t need a consolation. I want only what belongs to me.
KERRY POINTS AT GLORIA’S BRIEFCASE
It’s right there in that expensive briefcase. The will!
Gloria: Forget about BLACK POWER, Kerry. Look at me. [SHE GETS UP FROM HER CHAIR] Does what you see please you? [SHE BEGINS TO UNBUTTON HERSELF] Does it give you any pleasure what you see? Don’t you like my WHITE POWER?
Kerry: No, because that’s only the power of the flesh. The blacks have been sold a lot of trash like that before wrapped up in tinselled paper and sprinkled with sweet-smelling toilet water! It’s time to stop all that.
Gloria: Now that Mandela has come to power?
Kerry: What has Mandela got to do with it?
Gloria: Suddenly, you don’t need white flesh.
Kerry: What I’m trying to say is, we blacks have been trapped in a quagmire of flesh for a very long time. It’s time to think about mind for a change.
Gloria: Like Ariel.
Gloria: Ariel. [SIGHS] Oh, never mind! For a psychiatrist you’re sometimes terrifyingly ignorant, Dan Kerry.
Kerry: Oh, Ariel! I know who Ariel is. The chap who wrote that play about Caliban.
Gloria: [LAUGHING] That’s the most stupid thing I ever heard! Kerry, I sometimes wonder about you.
Kerry: Why? Isn’t that who Ariel was? The chap who sang a lot of melodies. Talked in a Stratford accent about marrying body and soul? I know all about that. That’s Rousseau territory. It’s not my scene.
Gloria: I like that. ‘Not my scene.’ The blacks in South Africa will buy that! Blacks like colourful language. It’s their raison d’être. So what is your scene, Dr. Kerry?
Kerry: Something more substantial. Like I said: white people must divest themselves of everything they stole, give it back to the people.
GLORIA CLIMBS ONTO A CHAIR OR TABLE AND BEGINS HER SLOW DANCE TO THE STRAINS: MANDELA, I’M COMING. SHE PERFORMS A LITTLE STRIP-TEASE FOR DAN KERRY.
Gloria: In the new South Africa what we whites have to learn is to divest,—to take off every item, bit by bit, of the things we stole [STRIPPING TO THE MUSIC WITH A STRONG AFRICAN BEAT GLORIA BEGINS TO REMOVE ITEMS OF CLOTHING],—and give them back to the people who own them—the land, the factories, the ports,—I mean everything—just take it off! Give it all back to the natives!
VOICE ON THE PUBLIC ADDRESS SYSTEM: ‘SOUTH AFRICAN AIRWAYS WISHES TO ANNOUNCE THE DEPARTURE OF ITS CHARTER FLIGHT 1994 TO JOHANNESBURG!’ GLORIA SNAPS HER FINGERS, WHIRLS. BOTH KERRY AND GLORIA ARE OBLIVIOUS TO THE ANNOUNCEMENT.
Here I am, trying to give it all back to you, Dan Kerry—it’s all yours! [TAKING OFF MORE CLOTHES] And to think all the time I thought that’s all you ever wanted, and here I am, ready to give it all back to you, and quite obviously you don’t want it! This is WHITE POWER, darling! [SHE IS FINALLY COMPLETELY OR PARTIALLY NUDE]
© Astrid Starck-Adler