Theatre Interview: Bo Petersen – Pieces Of Me, Or Showing One’s True Colours

June 22, 2024

National Arts Festival from 25 to 30 June, then runs at The Baxter from 10 to 27 July.

Pieces Of Me is a moving, personal story of the unspoken histories that many people carry within them. An exploration of family secrets, with resonances that still echo today. It explores questions about identity: “Who are you, if you can no longer be who you are?” Bo Petersen grew up in a white family in Apartheid South Africa. When she was 19 she uncovered her father’s secret. He was not white and had married the love of his life, who was white. From the age of 28 he lived as a white man. When Bo found out about her father’s hidden life, his secret, nearly 40 years ago, her life changed in a profound way. She became the custodian of his secret. She began writing “pieces” as a way of trying to understand her father, his “passing” and in turn, her “passing”. They were collaborators in their knowledge and silence. What began as a solo show has now excitingly been expanded, with Bo’s cousin, musician Christopher Petersen, joining her on stage.


In the lead-up to a new production, how do you prepare – physically, mentally and emotionally?

Every production is different. Some require you to be physically very fit while others require you to do a lot of research. But generally, I feel an actor needs to see themselves as an athlete. Be fit physically, emotionally and mentally. Respect your craft and your fellow actors by doing the work. This production has been unique though, in that it has required all of me at all times. It takes a huge toll on me but one that I am willing to give.


What is the single most influential performance you’ve ever seen – the one that made you feel, “This is what I want to do with my life!”?

Seeing the movie The Wizard of Oz when I was five years old. I didn’t fully understand but I knew I was going to do what Dorothy was doing. It wasn’t a matter of “this is what I want to do with my life”; it was more, “this is what my life will be”.


What is your favourite aspect of the industry – be it specific people, parts of the production process, particular venues/locations, or something else?

The rehearsal process is my favourite and happiest place to be. It begins with the creation of a new family – your cast – the creation of a new production and the element of “play” that I think is so important when creating. If there were such a thing, I would be a professional rehearser.


What has been your scariest onstage/on-set moment so far (anything from forgetting words or cues to accidents or other unforeseen events)?

I was arrested and charged under the Immorality Act in 1978 when I played Jill in the Afrikaans version of Equus in Pretoria. My cast members hid me away when the police jumped up onto the stage after a performance to arrest me. They told the police I had already left for home. A member of the audience – who had seen the play three times! – had complained to the Censor Board. Unlike the English staging that had happened in the early Seventies where both actors were completely naked, my fellow actor and I had only taken our tops off and in very dim lighting. I had to go to  Pretoria Central Prison the next day to be officially charged by a Captain who claimed to love theatre but was just doing his job and following the law. My brilliant lawyer said he hoped my case would go to court so that we would be the laughingstock of the world. Luckily, it was thrown out. The section of the Immorality Act that I was charged under pertained to prostitutes showing their wares in public!


Tell us about your current production and what makes your character interesting to play?

Pieces Of Me is autobiographical so apart from playing myself – an interesting challenge – I play five other characters: two aunts who I knew; my grandmother who I never knew; a professor from drama school and a headmaster from a local high school. It is easier to play other people but to be you and not become performative is and continues to be a challenge.