Spice Root – my first puppets in South Africa

This past Friday I went and saw a show at the Baxter Theatre, called Spice Root. It was a piece about the colonization on Java, and the subsequent slave route between Java and the Cape of Good Hope. The piece employed all sorts of traditional Javanese performance: music, dance, food, and shadow puppets! Between studying Javanese shadow puppetry, and the fact that there is a Gamelan (a Javanese music tradition) at Sarah Lawrence, I know far more about Javanese culture than your average American, who doesn’t even know where Java is. That being said, I was really excited to see the show.

I was not disappointed. The group employed traditional puppetry techniques to tell the story of the war between the Dutch and the Javanese. They used three screens in the shape of waves/sails, which echoed against the repeated images of the boats. The center screen was the largest, and told most of the story, with the two smaller screens flanked the stage with details. For example, while the large screen showed the Dutch army firing cannons on the Javanese, and the Javanese returning fire with arrows, the two smaller screens would show an individual Dutchman battling an individual Javanese. It was really powerful.

The show as a whole was really inspiring. A lot of performance I have seen strives to involved audiences through multiple senses. This is maybe the first I’ve seen where it worked. Throughout the show a woman sat to one side of the stage cooking. As a result, but 20 minutes into the show the theater was full of wonderful smells that I could not recognize. Then at the end of the show they fed up what she had been cooking. It was wonderful.

I left the whole show feeling inspired and reminded of why I love theater so much. And I was further pleased by the fact that my friend I brought along who “doesn’t like theater” enjoyed it greatly. While I was reveling in the intellectual things like the puppeteers use of traditional forms, he kept saying, “Well, I didn’t understand any of it, but I know I liked it. I liked it a lot.”

2 Responses to “Spice Root – my first puppets in South Africa”

  1. Omen says:


    A note about Gamelan: The music form is not unique to Java. There is also Gamelan in Bali where it plays an important ritual role in agricultural festivals and social festivals (please see my conference paper for Chas. Zerner). I think the Gamelan set at SLC is Balinese rather than Javanese. Bali also has an elaborate puppet tradition, but I have no idea how the two compare.

  2. Melanie says:

    i got your letter. by the way. thanks :) :) :)

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