South African homecomer Michael Charlton’s highly acclaimed My Father’s Coat is a one-man show written with the intention of bringing South Africa’s history to life. The show condenses South Africa’s epic narrative into a bite-size story which is both compelling and accurate. My Father’s Coat has drawn amazing emotion from South Africans and non-South Africans across the globe. We ask him some questions about the fascinating story behind My Father’s Coat as well as his reasons for coming home.
- Can you tell us about My Father’s Coat? What is it about?
The idea behind My Father’s Coat was to infuse the traditionally dour study of history, with the emotion and sentiment associated with the art of storytelling.
Having studied history after completing my accounting articles, I had come to realise that the story of South Africa holds powerful insights and lessons for ourselves and the world, but also that these insights were largely inaccessible: lying trapped in the pages of dusty bookshelves. Accordingly, I began to ponder ways to make our story more accessible to people. In time, storytelling emerged as the logical channel through which to make our story accessible: powerful, human, and very South African.
The challenge then was marrying an academic account of history to the traditions of storytelling. Having long grappled with this challenge, I found a solution in telling a story through the eyes of five carefully-selected characters spanning 200 years. And with deeply contrasting views and overlapping lives, their often-fiery interactions provided the fertile ground necessary to unearth many of the illusive complexities and dynamics rolled up into our past.
- What was the inspiration behind it?
My inspiration came from a personal passion for the story of South Africa. Like many South Africans, I grew up believing that the world around me was normal. However, at some point South Africans wake up to the unique social order of our country. For me the catalyst was Alan Paton’s famous novel “Cry the Beloved Country,” which I read as a first-year accounting student at Stellenbosch: an emotional experience, for this book allowed me to recognise for the first time the powerful human experiences wrapped up within the South African tragedy. And perhaps more importantly, it sparked a powerful new curiosity in South Africa. A curiosity which, over many years, has provided me the drive to better understand our country’s complexities and which ultimately would lure me away from my financial career.
- What inspired you to return home to South Africa and how long were you away?
I lived in the United States for two years having completed my accounting articles. I was about 26 at the time and the US provided an exciting life for a young man. I travelled each week to a new part of the country, doing interesting work (mergers and acquisitions) and meeting fascinating people.
However, I never really considered the US to be home. I always had an attachment to South Africa, evidenced by the fact that I was, at the time, distance-studying South African history. So, in a sense I always knew the US was temporary. I knew there was opportunity back home, but above all, I knew that South Africa offered me a meaningful life. So, after two years, I returned to Cape Town, initially to study history full-time for 6 more months, and then the plan was to look for opportunities in the financial sector.
- What encouraged you to leave a financial background and pursue your passion?
I had a strong belief that there was a market for the South African story and that nobody else was playing in the space I was looking at. That said, as an accountant, I was fairly rational about what I needed to make the transition. I knew that I needed a financial buffer which would allow me enough time to set up my business and to write the content which would hopefully drive the revenue. In that sense my financial background set me up well, by providing enough savings that I could invest many months researching and crafting what would become “My Father’s Coat.”
However, interestingly, part of this rational approach was to aim my stories at tourists. It seemed logical, because there was a new market in Cape Town, fresh off the plane every day. Further, many of them have very little knowledge of our incredible story, so I believed I could fill a gap in our tourist offering. However, from my earliest dry-runs to my patient brothers and father, I discovered that the show found a powerful resonance with South Africans. Accordingly, my story began to evolve and before long, I found a surprising and powerful demand for the show from corporate South Africa, which in turn has proven to be my primary market. In fact, I have performed the show 150 times now and only twice international tourists!
- What is your opinion on South Africa’s current ‘story’?
South Africa remains a land bubbling with intensity and passion. Inevitably, this enables voices from the radical fringes of society to receive more than their fair share of media airtime and admittedly this can be frightening at times.
But, with context, I believe the big picture remains exciting. Our constitution and the judiciary have remained untouchable; our media remains free and robust; the information age (and its associated “leaks”) are making corruption an increasingly challenging art; and realistically we can expect technology (in the medium term) to realise the dream of a well-educated youth and the extraordinary potential that will offer.
- What would you say to other potential homecomers still living abroad but toying with the idea of returning?
I have never been fond of throwing out advice and it is a hackneyed cliché to speak of opportunity. That said, there is a quote from Teddy Roosevelt pinned onto the wall of my son’s room which resonates with me about living a meaningful life: That, “it is not the critic that counts” but rather the man “who strives valiantly” from inside “the arena.”
- What were your best and worst things about returning home?
I think having the luxury of six months before searching for an income (a lot easier before kids I’ll acknowledge) really helped. With time on my hands I ended up teaching maths in Khayelitsha, which both reinforced the idea that we can make a difference very easily in SA, but also, having the opportunity to look out at these eager young eyes so clearly keen to learn, helped me cement a renewed optimism in the country. In terms of negatives, I really don’t remember anything from the time, although I acknowledge the wonderful travel opportunities on the doorstep of people living in Europe and North America.