Haunted by the memory of slavery

'What Remains' is a path between memory and magic, the uncanny and the known, waking and dreaming

11 September 2019 - 12:07

On a still, cool day in the east of a city by the sea, three sounds only: a bulldozer’s engine, a forgotten song, a canon that tells the time.

Behind the bulldozer, a sign: Luxury Mall Coming Soon. As the vehicle moves in to the clear ground, it strikes at something unexpected…

What Remains is a fusion of text, dance and movement to tell a story about the unexpected uncovering of a slave burial ground in Cape Town, the archaeological dig that follows and a city haunted by the memory of slavery.

When the bones emerge from the ground, everyone in the city – slave descendants, archaeologists, citizens, property developers – is forced to reckon with a history sometimes remembered, sometimes forgotten.

Loosely based on the events at Prestwich Place, What Remains is a path between memory and magic, the uncanny and the known, waking and dreaming. Four figures – The Archaeologist, The Healer, The Dancer and The Student – move between bones and books, archives and madness, paintings and protest, as they struggle to reconcile the past with the now.

What Remains is the winner of five Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards in 2018, including Best New South African Play (Nadia Davids) and Best Director (Jay Pather).

Author bio:

Nadia Davids is a writer, theatre-maker and scholar. Her plays At Her Feet, Cissie and What Remains have won various Fleur de Cap Theatre awards. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town.

Jay Pather is a choreographer, curator and academic. He is Director of the Institute for Creative Arts at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Associate Professor in UCT’s Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies.


“What Remains is destined to become a South African classic. Nadia Davids’s transformative play digs up bones and reaches for the sacred. It dramatises the timeless dance between memory and ‘progress’ in a way that is also a fierce critique of the present moment. Like the best drama, it is universal because Davids roots it so precisely in the experience of her time – post-apartheid South Africa – and place: her beloved Cape Town.” – Mark Gevisser, author of Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir

“What Remains excavates a tragic history, mining beauty, no less than poetry, from a slave burial ground. This heart-breaking dance on the page, cries out to be performed. With Pather’s choreographic notes, it promises to be a triumph.” – Zoë Wicomb, Emeritus Professor at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

“A beautiful masterpiece.” Cape Times

“Vyf sterre.” Die Burger

What Remains is an impressive, disquieting and heart-breaking piece.” Weekend Special.

This is a rare insight into the processes through which a new form of theatre-writing may evolve and be made accessible in print. – Sarah Roberts, Associate Professor, Department of Drama, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg