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. The Queen Drama Has great response from Safrica Tv.
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.
South Africa Tv SA achieved majority rule at the end of the 20th century, but a powerful alternative theatre articulated the struggle against apartheid from the mid-century onward.
The collaborative work between Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona (Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island, both 1974), had an international impact, as did Woza Albert! (first performed 1980), by Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema, and Barney Simon—a brilliant political satire that sets Jesus’ Second Coming in apartheid South Africa. The authors of that play connected with two other important companies in South African theatre, through Simon, who was the inspirational director of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg (where much of the most-challenging contemporary South African theatre had its roots), and Mtwa and Ngema, who were previously successful performers in the hugely popular touring theatre of Gibson Kente.
Ngema became a leading radical playwright with, among other plays, Asinamali! (1985; We Have No Money) and Sarafina (1987). Various other radical theatre operations created new theatre—often through improvisation in a challenging interracial context, Workshop ’71 (with uNosilimela, Survival, and Crossroads) being a leading example.
Other important playwrights include Matsemela Manaka (with Egoli, 1980; Pula, 1982; and others), who created Soyikwa Africa Theatre, and Maishe Maponya (The Hungry Earth, 1981; Gangsters and Dirty Work, 1984; Jika, 1986; and others). Paul Slabolepszy wrote extremely popular plays about the plight of poor white people of South Africa, and Bartho Smit wrote perceptively of the often anguished situation of the Afrikaner in South Africa. Other notable Afrikaner playwrights were P.G. du Plessis and Reza de Wet.
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.