“Donkie” – A theatre production with Frank Opperman

  • Starring: Frank Opperman
  • Written by: Dana Snyman
  • Directed by: Gerrit Schoonhoven
  • Produced by: Let’s be Frank Productions

Afrikaans humour is a very specific sort of humour, and I wish I could explain it better so English people can get it. Nevertheless, despite the small amount of people who calls Afrikaans their mother tongue, its art scene has never failed to excel. There are countless Afrikaans art festivals in South Africa, two examples being the KKNK and Aardklop. The film industry is picking up and there are a lot (almost too many) South African singers, with major annual shows only in Afrikaans. There is one cultural aspect of Afrikaans, however, that’s always been fantastic in my opinion: theatre.

I had the opportunity to watch Frank Opperman’s one-man show, Donkie, in our town hall last week. It was organised by one of the local church committees as a fundraising event. The comical drama has just finished showing at the annual KKNK (Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees) in Oudtshoorn, and since I couldn’t attend the festival this year, I was excited to attend a show I wouldn’t otherwise have gotten the chance to see.

Opperman is an established actor in South Africa in both theatre and television and has been in the drama business for about 30 years. He has played in the feature film Boetie gaan border toe alongside Arnold Vosloo and has featured in several TV shows. I remember him, as many other 90’s babies in SA would, as “Ouboet” in the old but still genius Afrikaans sitcom, Orkney Snork Nie (I still watch the reruns when I get the chance). In 2010, he was the star in another sitcom, Die Uwe Pottie Potgieter (also written by Dana Snyman).

Frank’s approach to comedy in later productions has been along the same lines since then: a drily hilarious, situation-driven sense of humour with the context of current social and political trends and conditions in the country as a backbone. Donkie is, in this same tradition, a social commentary piece about the recent controversies surrounding education and educators in South Africa.

The word “donkie” is, indeed, Afrikaans for donkey, and in the more traditional Afrikaans culture it is a degrading nickname given to the less academically strong learners in a classroom. The show, written by renowned writer Dana Snyman, is a monologue by Opperman who plays the principal, Mr. Barry Swart (nicknamed Donkie), of Hans Oosthuizen High School. He leads the assembly period from the stage, as is the tradition in South African school, and touches on various topics typical to primary schools, such as sport results, the school’s core moral values, et cetera.

Mr. Swart also needs to react to a recent newspaper article about a racial incident that took place between a teacher and a student, and how Swart as principal handled the situation – and this is where the assembly period takes longer than expected.

Opperman engages with the audience in an original fourth-wall-breaking technique: by turning them into the seated school learners. The stage is immediately turned into the school hall’s stage, and when the school credo needs to be recited, the audience – like a reluctant assembly of students – is encouraged to stand up and repeat it. This is a fun way of letting the audience identify with the production, as each one of them has sat in an assembly chair before as a primary school learner. I’ts also a clever approach to making the piece succeed as a one-man show – every principal’s assembly address is essentially a one-man show.

Mr. Barry Swart’s speech unfolds effortlessly, seemingly unscripted (and therefore good dramaturgy on Snyman’s side). It develops from initially light and funny to slightly more sombre as the seriousness of the racial incident and the reality of the underlying commentary is realised. It portrays the role and work of modern South African school principals and influential factors such as language transformation and the increasing pressure to incorporate English in schools, post-apartheid regulations, syllabus changes, declining discipline among students, the laws against corporal punishment and, of course, racism.

The funny sections are hilarious, but Opperman plays the serious sections in a moving way, almost pleading with the audience on behalf of primary school principals all over the country. It’s a family friendly production, but it hits hard in the hearts of the audience members over the age of 30 – specifically those who knew the “old ways” of South African schools.

Throughout the production, Opperman’s comfort on the stage and dramatic skill remains notable. Donkie is one of those comedy productions with an extra, underlying level that leaves you pondering your own perceptions of certain social issues afterwards. It is definitely an hour-long school assembly worth attending.

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