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‘This story is important to me’ – Distell winner Putuma

Published on 7 March 2019

Writer and performance poet Koleka Putuma is the winner of this year’s Distell National Playwright Competition, aimed at discovering emerging South African talent and fostering new South African voices.

Putuma was announced as the winner at an awards function in Cape Town on Wednesday 6 March. She wins R25 000 in prize money — as well as the opportunity to take her play into full production to be staged as part of the Main programme at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda, which runs from 27 June to 7 July.

Putuma, whose powerful debut poetry collection Collective Amnesia was named Book of the Year by City Press in 2017, took first place with her script titled, ‘No Easter Sunday for Queers’.

Nobesuthu Rayi, the Associate Producer of the National Arts Festival, says Putuma “is one of those black women who have been claiming their spaces on this earth – and her play does nothing less than that. Her work is a rare force – aggressive, true and layered. While it does not sit comfortably at times, just as homophobic attacks never sit well, her narrative’s rough texture resembles the nature of our society for the LGBTIQ+ community.”

Production is beginning on Putuma’s brand-new play, with a director and actors being appointed. The play will be staged as part of the Main programme at the Festival, which is attended by local and international producers.

“We are excited about our partnership with National Art Festival and the platform this competition creates for developing young writers, like Putuma, whose stories need to be heard. We look forward to seeing Putuma’s script coming life as part of the Main programme at the National Arts Festival,” says Simoné Benjamin, Arts and Culture Project Manager Distell.

On winning the award, Putuma says: “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to share this work on such a huge platform, and to be backed by Distell and the National Arts Festival means a great deal. I have never showcased my own work at the National Arts Festival, let alone on the Main stage. So the idea of that makes me want to scream. I am nervous and excited at the same time. This story is important to me, and I feel incredibly privileged that the adjudication panel felt that it was important to share this story with others and to give it life beyond the page.”

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Putuma writes on her website that her work “insists on visibility and offering healing”. She takes on authority in various spaces — academia, religion, politics, relationships – to ask what has been learnt and what must be unlearnt.

“There is a space for a voice such as Putuma’s in this industry and in our society,” Rayi says. “I’m pleased that the Distell judges could see that too.”

The four other finalists – Erica Harris, Kelly-Eve Koopman, Morapeleng Molekoa and Bongumusa Mnisi – were highly commended by the judges with very promising scripts between them. They each receive R5000 and, as part of the prize, received mentoring from a writing professional to take their play to completion.

2019 Selection Panel

The organisers would like to thank the selection panel for their time and expertise:

  • Artist-activist Keituletse Gwangwa has enjoyed a very successful global career across many of the arts disciplines and is now the Head of Windybrow Arts Centre in Hillbrow. 
  • Professor Anton Krueger, who has been nominated for awards in a wide range of genres and currently Associate Professor in the Department of Drama at Rhodes University, where he teaches Performance Studies and Writing for Performance.
  • Creative Writing Lecturer at Rhodes University Dr Hleze Kunju, a multi award-winning literary scholar, speaker, poet and language activist and one of Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young and Influential South Africans in 2018.
  • Malika Ndlovu, whose words and productions have appeared on pages and stages all over the world and who was hailed by the Times of London as one of 50 contemporary African artists to look out for.
  • Ameera Patel, a well-known playwright, actor and published novelist. She was one of the Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans in 2016.
  • Award-winning playwright, translator, producer and director Hennie van Greunen, who co-owns the Wordsmith’s Theatre Factory.
  • Upile uThixo Bongco has a BA (Drama) from Rhodes University and is currently a drama teacher at St Andrew’s College/Diocesan School for Girls in Makhanda, where she strives to facilitate spaces in which students can creatively tell stories. She has performed in numerous productions at the NAF.
  • Robert Lourens is a producer, director and playwright. His ‘ Return of the Moon – A glimpse of Sara Baartman’ was presented at the PE Opera House last year.
  • Playwright and actor Xolani Mali, known for his roles in The Hotel Rwanda and Lions of Njombe, has returned to the Eastern Cape to turn his hand to directing and to assist emerging artists. His play ‘The Last Supper – The Musical’ was presented as part of the PE Opera House’s Drama Season last year.

Read more about the competition