South African theatre



The Playmakers, a statue by Ernest
Ullman, reflected in the windows of the
Johannesburg Civic Theatre.
(Image: Chris Kirchhoff, For more free
photos, visit the image library)

South Africa has a vibrant theatrical scene with more than 100 active spaces all over the country offering everything from indigenous drama, music, dance, cabaret and satire to West End and Broadway hits, classical opera and ballet.

Venues range from the staid and monolithic homes of the former state-supported performing arts councils to purpose-built theatres, a converted fresh-produce market and casinos.

Add to this a multitude of festivals that take place across the country all year round, offering an almost bewildering range of theatrical experiences. The annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, the largest festival of its kind in Africa, has in its 33 years spawned a variety of similar festivals such as the Afrikaans-language Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) in Oudtshoorn and the Manguang African Cultural Festival (Macufe) in Bloemfontein.

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The origins of South African theatre can be found in the rich and ancient oral tradition of indigenous South Africans – the folk tales around the fires, with their drama, and an audience ranging from the very young to the very old.

Performances on stage came much later. The formal South African theatre tradition dates as far back as the 1830s when Andrew Geddes Bains’s Kaatje Kekkelbek or Life among the Hottentots was performed in 1838 by the Grahamstown Amateur Company.

Originally, white South African theatre was heavily influenced by 20th-century missionaries, who made an important contribution to a tradition of theatre when they introduced drama in education. Their themes were not only staged versions of biblical teachings but also didactic plays located in South Africa. At Marianhill in the 1920s Father Bernard Hess also encouraged the production of comedies and the dramatisation of Zulu narratives.

Theatre began to flourish in the black townships where performance arts became increasingly popular in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1929 the Methethwe Lucky Stars staged productions based on themes of rural life and customs. In 1932 came the Bantu Dramatic Society, which aimed to encourage “Bantu playwrights” and to develop African dramatic and operatic art.

The 1930s and the 1940s saw the blooming of the work of Herbert Dhlomo, a teacher, journalist and musician, who was the first South African playwright to make a significant attempt to challenge colonial domination through drama. His work, The Girl Who Killed To Save, was the first published play by a black writer in English. Indigenous theatre continued to develop in the 1940s and 1950s with the formation of organisations such as the Orlando Boy’s Club Dramatic Society. In the townships, particularly in Johannesburg’s vibrant Sophiatown, an eclectic performance culture developed, drawing on American, English and African cultural traditions and involved comic sketches and acting as well as jazz, singing and dancing.

The album cover of the original cast
recording of King Kong, South Africa’s first
international musical hit.

Creative outlets

During the mid-20th century, theatre for white English-speaking South Africans consisted almost of local (or sometimes imported) versions of plays being performed in England or America. The National Theatre, formed in 1947, did not allow for black creative participation and, although it performed some indigenous Afrikaans plays, only about five of more than 40 plays performed in English were by South Africans. One of the few was Guy Butler, whose play The Dam and the Dove Returns entered the company’s repertoire in the 1950s.

In the 1950s, as the apartheid system put a stranglehold on South Africa, some of the country’s major writers, including Lewis Nkosi, Nat Nakasa and Bloke Modisane, were barred from white theatres and their potential contribution to South African was lost.

But there were some attempts to provide outlets for emerging black talent. In the 1950s Ian Bernhardt, a member of an amateur society, formed an all-black drama group called the Bareti Players, which drew on the tradition of theatre based on European models. Bernhardt also promoted the Township Jazz concerts that culminated in the production of the all-hit musical, King Kong.

Towards the end of the 1950s, a young Port Elizabeth playwright named Athol Fugard made his first impression on the Johannesburg stage with a play entitled No-Good Friday. The play was created with a number of black intellectuals from Sophiatown and opened in 1958 at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre, adjacent to Dorkay House.

King Kong opened at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Great Hall in 1959 to multiracial audiences. During a season in London the musical launched stars such as Miriam Makeba and Todd Matshikiza into the international spotlight. Sponono, another musical using black actors and produced by Alan Paton and Krishnah Shah, opened in 1961 in Durban and Johannesburg to much acclaim.

Benjy Francis and Fats Bookholane in
Athol Fugard’s The Blood Knot
(Image: Baxter Theatre)

Tackling apartheid

As the National Party entrenched itself through all manner of constraints – apartheid legislation, censorship, bannings, media restrictions – theatre was increasingly used as a means of criticising the apartheid state. Plays by white playwrights like Lewis Sowden (The Kimberley Train), Basil Warner (Try for White), David Herbert (A Kakamas Greek) and Athol Fugard (The Blood Knot) tackled aspects of the apartheid system. But few of them were seen in the areas in which the victims of the system lived.

South Africa’s black townships were devoid of all amenities apart from the odd sports stadium. Soweto, with a population of more than 1-million in the 1970s, had one nightclub, one hotel, one cinema and two outdoor arenas. Those productions which did tour the townships or which emanated from them were performed in draughty communal or church halls. Nonetheless, in the 1950s and 1960s, a vibrant township theatre movement began to evolve.

In the late 1950s Athol Fugard and his wife Sheila began a small theatre group in Port Elizabeth called the Circle Players. Later in the 1960s, Fugard worked with a Port Elizabeth group called the Serpent Players. From its members, the young John Kani and Winston Ntshona, with whom he created Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island, which would go on to win international acclaim. In those years the prolific Fugard also wrote Hello and Goodbye and Boesman and Lena.

In Durban, Ronnie Govender and Muthal Naidoo founded the Shah Theatre Academy in 1964. In the the-Transvaal, Gibson Kente (1932 – 2004), a South African theatre legend, created a black theatre that did not explore political themes but concentrated on love, adultery, alcoholism and crime. Two of Kente’s young actor/musicians, Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema, went on to produce one of South Africa’s most phenomenal international successes – the two-hander Woza Albert! The play toured extensively and won numerous awards worldwide.

In black areas all over the country theatre groups came and went, many of them snuffed out by the political harassment and sometimes the indefinite detention of their participants. The Theatre Council of Natal (TECON), which was founded in 1969, died with the arrest of three key Black Consciousness leaders who were active in it. The People’s Experimental Theatre (PET) was formed in 1973, but disintegrated when several of its leaders were arrested and charged with treason.

Much work was banned either by ministerial decree or by township superintendents who refused to allow it to be performed. One of those to fall foul of the authorities was playwright Maishe Maponya, whose Bahumutsi Drama Group used the Moravian church hall in Diepkloof, Soweto, to bring his work to the township. His Gangsters, however, was considered by the Directorate of Publications to be so “inflammatory” it could only be performed in “small, intimate, four-wall theatres of the experimental or avante-garde type”. Since there were none of those in any township, he sought a home for the play in one of the smaller spaces at the new Market Theatre.

Struggle theatre of the 1970s

The 1970s saw an intensification of worker and trade union struggle and the student uprising of 1976 which sowed the seeds of the revolution that would result in the birth of democracy in 1994. As repression grew and the voices of political activists were increasingly silenced, theatre became an important means of voicing the protests that were banned from the streets and political platforms of the country.

Theatre emanated from the unions, from the Black Consciousness movement, from the collaborative efforts of Fugard, Kani and Ntshona, from Kente, and from a multitude of university and fringe groups. The Music Drama Arts and Literature Institute (MDALI), formed in 1972, sought to “promote self determination, self realisation and self support in theatre arts”. The Shah Theatre Academy in Durban continued to stage plays up to the 1980s, the Imitha Players were founded in East London in 1970, and the Inkhwezi Players emerged in Grahamstown in 1974. Familiar texts and universal themes were adapted to reflect local conditions in a variety of ways.

In 1970 Welcome Msomi, collaborating with Peter Scholz and Elizabeth Sneddon, director of the Theatre Workshop Company in Durban, produced Umabatha, a Zulu version of Macbeth, which was performed both in South Africa and at the World Theatre Season in London in 1972. Dorkay House’s Phoenix Players, directed by Barney Simon, staged Phiri, an African jazz musical which placed Ben Jonson’s Volpone in a township setting, while Workshop 71 used Crossroads to present Everyman in township terms. An important theatre group to emerge in the 1970s was the nonracial Junction Avenue Theatre Company, which produced innovative productions such as The Fantastical History of a Useless Man and Randlords and Rotgut.

While indigenous theatre was exploding, venues for its performance were not. The state-subsidised Performing Arts Council was not interested in new South African work in English and certainly not interested in anything that challenged apartheid. In 1976, for instance, the only local work to be seen on the stage of the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT) was coloured poet Adam Small’s Kanna Hy kô Huistoe.

New and innovative venues began to emerge and productions of controversial local work found their homes in various spaces at the University of the Witwatersrand, at the Space Theatre in Cape Town and the Stable Theatre in Durban. After 1976, the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, and, from 1977, the Baxter Theatre on the University of Cape Town campus became popular venues for local productions.

The Space, founded in Cape Town by theatre photographer Brian Astbury and his actress wife Yvonne Bryceland, opened in May 1972 and established itself as a defiantly nonracial venue in a racially divided country. The first pioneering fringe theatre in the country, it mounted almost 300 productions starting with the premier of Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest under the Immorality Act. Taken over by Moyra Fine and Rob Amato after Astbury and Bryceland left, it survived as The People’s Space for some two years before succumbing to overwhelming financial pressures.

Shelagh Holliday and Marius Weyers in
Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes.
(Image: Baxter Theatre)

The Market Theatre

The Market Theatre was the brainchild of writer and director Barney Simon and producer and administrator Mannie Manim, both of whom had had wide experience of theatre before forming The Company – an independent company committed to nonracial theatre – in 1974. Housed in a former Indian fresh-produce market in Johannesburg’s Newtown, the Market Theatre complex consists of three theatres, the Main Theatre, the Barney Simon Theatre and the Laager Theatre.

Like the People’s Space, it defied the Group Areas Act, which restricted theatres in white areas to white people only – both as audience and as actors. From the start the trustees of the Market Theatre Trust opened the stages and the auditoria to all who wished to come there, regardless of race. The Market Theatre also encouraged local playwrights, local performers, and local work, a move would bring it its international reputation and a string of awards as the most exciting and entrepreneurial management in the country.

It was to the Market that Fugard would bring his A Lesson from Aloes, Master Harold … and the Boys, The Road to Mecca, A Place with the Pigs, My Children! My Africa!, and Playland. At the Market Barney Simon and his actors would develop in workshop Cincinatti – Scenes from City Life, Call Me Woman, Black Dog Inj’emnyana, Outers, Born in the RSA, and Woza Albert!

It was at the Market that Johannesburg theatregoers were introduced to the work of most of South Africa’s leading playwrights and directors, including Welcome Msomi, Zanemvula (Zakes) Mda, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Gibson Kente, Paul Slabolepszy, Mbongeni Ngema, Adam Small, PG du Plessis, Kessie Govender, Bartho Smit, Maishe Maponya, Percy Mtwa, Deon Opperman, Reza de Wet, Matsemela Manaka, and a myriad aspirants.

Under the new CEO Sibongiseni Mkhize, artistic director Malcolm Purkey and financial manager Christine McDonald, the Market Theatre has evolved into a cultural complex for theatre, music, dance and the allied arts. The theatre celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2006 with a year-long programme of local and international theatrical productions.

Closely linked to the Market was the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town which opened in 1977 under the enthusiastic direction of Irishman John Slemon. It wasn’t long before Slemon, Manim and Simon were discussing collaboration and many of the Market’s successes, some of them directed by Simon, went on to play at the Baxter. In 2001 Manim took over as director of the Baxter.

The Baxter also built a relationship with a local township group, the Cape Flats Players, who mainly performed their own original work which would open at the Cape Town theatre and then play at the Market Theatre.

Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa in Woza
(Image: Baxter Theatre)

Anger and anguish

In the late 1970s theatre grew as a means of expressing frustration, anger and anguish among communities. At the People’s Space in 1978, and later at the Market Theatre, Imfundiso was produced by the women of Crossroads, the city’s sprawling informal settlement, to dramatise their predicament. Prison was the subject of many of the plays of the 1970s and 1980s, among them Kani, Ntshona and Fugard’s The Island, for which the actors received a Tony Award, as well as Workshop 71’s workshopped Survival and Mbongeni Ngema’s Asinamali.

Other works explored the plight of domestic workers (Poppie Nongena), the trauma of black policemen (Bopha!), the role of black women in a South Africa racked by violence (Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo – You Strike the Woman, You Strike the Rock) detention without trial (Four Paces by Two) and security police infiltration (Born in the RSA).

The trade union movement also made use of theatre to publicise its problems. In 1979 the Junction Avenue Theatre Company was asked to produce a short play entitled Security, to raise money in support of a strike by the Food and Canning Workers Union. The following year, during a strike at a foundry on the East Rand, a lawyer called in to help defend some of the arrested strikers, conceived a role-play situation to try to reconstruct events. This experiment evolved, with the help of a member of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company, into a production entitled Ilanga Lizophumela Abasebenzi (The Sun Will Rise for the Workers), performed both to workers in factories and to a wider audience at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Other productions followed, and during the period 1983 to 1987, thirteen plays were created, many of which played in several parts of the country, one of them also being performed in England.

Mbongeni Ngema, who shot to fame with Woza Albert!, immortalised the 1976 student uprising in 1987 with his hit musical Sarafina!

The cast of the international hit Umoja in
action on stage.
(Image: Umoja)

The present

The political change in 1994 began to undermine the position of the traditionally white-dominated Performing Arts Councils and with the country’s new freedom came a crisis of identity. No longer could the world be divided into the good (opponents of apartheid) and the bad (proponents of apartheid). Clear lines began to blur, and with the blurring came uncertainty. South Africa’s vibrant cultural life began to become less vibrant. Uncertain what to write, many of the country’s leading playwrights grew silent and new work was thin on the ground.

But with the new century under way, the pendulum is swinging back, and, in nurseries like the Market Theatre Laboratory, the Liberty Theatre on the Square, Saturday Children’s Theatre Workshops, the Cape Town Theatre Lab, the National Children’s Theatre, new shoots of talent are burgeoning and blooming, nurtured by events like the Market’s Community and Young Writers’ Festivals. Many new names are being added to the role call of South African playwrights – Lesego Rampolokeng, Xoli Norman, Mondi Mayepu, Heinrich Reisenhofer and Oscar Petersen, Fiona Coyne, Mark Lottering, Nazli George, Craig Freimond, and Rajesh Gopie – creative, innovative and serious about theatre.

In Johannesburg, new theatres recently opened up to the public. The Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein, Umoja ‘s Victory Theatre in Orange Grove and the Teatro at Montecasino, which opened to host The Lion King in May 2007, are new additions to the 20 or so theatres already in existence in the city.

A new state-of-the-art theatre currently under construction in Soweto is scheduled to open in 2012.

Some of the plays are still frequently raw and angry and ragged, but now they encompass themes that would, in earlier years, have been considered irrelevant. Love, religion, family violence, homosexuality, drugs and more are explored in works that engage and involve their audiences. Importantly, too, works that in the 1970s were new, shiny and innovative have, 30 years on, become classics. A revival of Woza Albert! in 2001 evoked the same hilarity and recognition as the original, even though the young audience had no personal memory of its frame of reference.

As importantly, young people are beginning to come to the theatre as audiences. New venues, like Cape Town’s Warehouse and the Fugard Theatre which opened in 2010 in District Six, encourage young audiences, with a range of fresh theatre that includes both original South African and innovative imported work. Also in Cape Town, the High Street Theatre presents a rich programme of mainly Afrikaans South African work, mixed with South African, mainly Afrikaans, cabaret entertainments.  

Collaborations, co-produced by Artscape with the Cape Town Theatre Lab, gives new South African work a one-week season in the Arena theatre in the Artscape complex. Artscape also stages community-type festivals. Audiences, though, sadly still tend to reflect the demographics of the company on the stage.

The late Barney Simon and John Kani opened the Market Theatre Laboratory in 1989 with seed money from the Rockefeller Foundation. The Laboratory, the training and development wing of the Market Theatre, fosters and develops young acting talent. Even in the once-conservative Free State, the Performing Arts Centre has transformed its activities to involve and develop exciting regional talent in all fields of performance.

The most exciting cultural explosion of all is from the communities themselves, observes the vice-chairperson of the Theatre Managements of South Africa, Des Lindberg. In the remote North West province, for instance, a theatrical tradition has “flourished and grown and drawn audiences in a way which is the envy of other provinces”. In the Western Cape, flourishing theatre group From the Hip: Khulumakahle, a mixed deaf-hearing ensemble, uses theatre to break down barriers between the hearing and deaf sectors of the population.

Before democracy, there was an explosion of community theatre groups in townships that shaped political agendas. However, some sectors have decried that today, community theatre faces stiff competition from mainstream theatre and is plagued by mismanagement and lack of funds. The Market Theatre Laboratory, in an effort to revive community theatre, runs a community theatre festival every year “to provide a space for indigenous South African works to be staged”.

With the gradual introduction of theatre studies into the school syllabus, there is hope that the next generation will be enticed away from television and computer screens and back into theatre seats.

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