If this is, as the local press likes to describe it, “the make or break year” for the new South Africa, then the same must be said of the nation’s theatre. “The Market is in transition just as the country is in transition,” says Barney Simon, artistic director for two decades of the Johannesburg venue that has emerged over time as South Africa’s primary exporter of challenging work. What’s true for the Market is true for playhouses throughout the country. For years, the battle lines were drawn, and theatre knew its function; now, apartheid is over, and with it has vanished “protest theatre.” In its place are the stories that need telling of a newly democratized country–that is, if the storytellers exist to relate the tale.Order now
To a journalist visiting the country for the first time at the start of this year, what’s unexpected about South African theatre is how familiar it all seems. The Johannesburg papers trumpet ads for established British hits like Shirley Valentine and The Woman in Black, as well as farces like The Earl and the Pussycat and Uproar in the House that one can envision without seeing them. Lest these comedies suggest that the theatre is shirking its responsibility to chronicle a nation in the midst of change, they in fact seem to be precisely what critics, as well as audiences, want.
“Guaranteed to banish the ‘new South Africa’ blues,” read the Johannesburg Star’s synopsis of Uproar in the House, as if to make clear that in times of uncertainty, escapism is the solution of choice. Can it be any surprise, then, that the Johannesburg premiere of Six Degrees of Separation cut short its run last fall? In a city beleaguered daily by escalating violence, no one wanted to see a play whose starting point was the arrival of a black intruder into a white home. Try explaining that John Guare’s play in fact concerns emotional rebirth, and you’re met with a blank stare.
In context, one can’t blame producer Pieter Toerien, the country’s leading commercial impresario, for moving away from Six Degrees to more genteel fare like Hugh Whitemore’s British The Best of Friends, as safe a parlor play as the theatre offers. (And cheaper to mount with its cast of three.) Next up for Toerien is Ray Cooney’s new London hit, It Runs in the Family. South Africa may barely have heard of August Wilson–and never of Tony Kushner–but the white theatregoing public is absolutely au fait with the work of Mr. Cooney. The cultural boycott, too, has taken a toll. This is an audience uneducated in the last decade or so about international theatre; their taste, in other words, merely reflects their exposure, or lack of it.
Feasting on the unfamiliar
These days, even the old faithfuls don’t automatically sell. Athol Fugard’s Playland got the best reviews of any production in Johannesburg in 1992, but averaged only 75-percent attendance throughout its run. (In Cape Town the same production was coolly received, and closed several weeks early.) William Nicholson’s Shadowlands, by contrast, played to near-capacity at the Market, featuring South African emigre Brian Murray (late of A Small Family Business on Broadway) on a rare return visit home.
While John Kani in Playland at London’s Donmar Warehouse may represent an English theatregoing event, in South Africa, it’s simply more of the same for an audience keen to feast on worlds they don’t know rather than reflections of the world they do. When Barney Simon tried to bridge the world of Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden and that of South Africa by casting black actor Ramolan Makhene as the husband, audiences fell away even more sharply; that production played to 40 percent in the Market’s 152-seat Theatre Upstairs. Poor reviews did not help.
The situation, then, somewhat echoes that of a much smaller trouble spot, Northern Ireland, where plays by local writers Ron Hutchinson and Anne Devlin rarely make the impact they do in London (or Off Broadway). The relatively recent introduction in 1975 of television to South Africa has further diluted a once considerable theatregoing culture, at least among the white minority. And after apartheid and its attendant states of emergency were lifted, South African theatre no longer needed to serve a journalistic, informative function. People could get their news from TV and the newspapers; they didn’t have to turn to Bopha!, Sophiatown or Asinamali to find out what was happening.
What, then, could a theatregoer keen to avoid downmarket British farce take in on a recent visit? The remaining options comprised a varied lot, linked–if at all–by a bizarre obsession with Elvis Presley, of all people. In Cape Town, theatrical activity has moved away from the once-enterprising Baxter (home during my trip to The Rocky Horror Show) and the historic Space (now closed) to the Dock Road Theatre, a thrust 204-seater in the American-style Waterfront complex, located by the harbor. My first Dock Road outing was The Return of Elvis Du Pisanie, a solo show written by, and starring, local phenomenon Paul Slabolepszy. Now 44, the Britain-born Slabolepszy was taken to South Africa at age three, and has since developed a following as one of the few serious rivals to Fugard.
Cape Town to Motown
While a later play of his in Johannesburg would support that assertion, Elvis du Pisanie made it seem risible at best. These musings of a gum-chewing Afrikaner–the Elvis of the title, so-called because he had won third prize in a Presley lookalike competition–were maudlin, self-aggrandizing and offensive in turn. The standing ovation notwithstanding, several audience members gathered in disbelief in the lobby afterwards to ponder the reviews, clucking their disapproval in ways to suggest that an American visitor was not alone in his assessment.
The second Dock Road offering–Davis Kramer and Tallep Petersen’s hit musical Fairyland, since transplanted to the Market–was marginally better, but no less sociologically intriguing. A follow-up to District Six, the widely traveled musical about the 250-acre Cape Town homeland razed under the Group Areas Action in the mid-’60s, Fairyland could be regarded as Cape Town’s own indigenous Five Guys Named Moe. Whereas one might expect at least a flash of anger as the talented cast makes its way through a song cycle of jazz, rock and–yes–Elvis, this show was completely without irony about its desire to take “Cape Town to Motown.”
While the first act at least established a community of smoothies, floozies and hustlers, the second act degenerated into a would-be tourist board-promotion, complete with a plug for the cast album and a curtain-call exhortation to “tell the whole world we love you.” The people the show is about may figure among apartheid’s more grotesque victims–a community that was literally bulldozed–but no historical event is so iniquitous that the Platters can’t put it right, or so the evening implies. The audience, which kept Fairyland running in Cape Town for an amazing two years, responded with another standing ovation.
Illuminating the way for change
Black theatre takes place mostly in Johannesburg, since that city has a much larger black African populace than the predominantly Cape-colored Cape Town. While Gibson Kente remains the doyen of township theatre, Mbongeni Ngema is its leading internationalist, and he was in rehearsal at Johannesburg’s Civic Theater for his most ambitious project yet: an expensive (3 million rand, or about $1 million) boxing musical called Magic at 4 A.M. starring Leleti Khumalo from Sarafina. While the show doesn’t open until April, an initial listen to the score bodes well, even if the lyrics–“the dream can come true if we make it happen”inevitably seem naive set against Ngema’s scintillating hybrid of rhythm and blues, gospel and township mbaqanga music. The work of a second black writer/director Matsemola Manaka–is equally earnest, if a bit more dogged, at least if his shows Yamina (among the first black African plays about AIDS) and Ekhaya: Museum over Soweto (about a museum opening in Soweto) are apt indications.
Both Manaka and Ngema deserve added attention for the very sites of their newest shows. By opening Magic at 4 A.M. at the 1,100-seat Civic, Ngema and his producer ex-Market resident producer Mannie Manim–are counting on a high level of black attendance in a traditionally white venue. (A Chorus Line, a Civic premiere last fall, did less-than-capacity business there, apparently because audiences were loath to see what they deemed to be “a rehearsal.”) Both Maraka’s shows were playing at different auditoria of South Africa’s four performing arts councils, onetime “apartheid dinosaurs” (according to detractors) attempting to adapt to the new climate.
If the offstage scenario at the theatre sometimes reveals more than the one onstage, at least one new play Slabolepszy’s Mooi Street Moves, the author’s 15th play offered hope in ways that went beyond the fully integrated Market Theater Upstairs audience. Set in Johannesburg’s increasingly black Hillbrow section, the play brings together a black street hawker named Sipho (played by a dazzling young actor named Seputla Dan Sebogodi) and an itinerant white, Henry (Martin Le Maitre), in search of his brother. An initial encounter in Sipho’s apartment turns into a three-and-a-half week flatshare amounting, among other things, to a kind of Pygmalion in reverse, as Henry learns Sipho’s canny, streetwise ways.
The evening ends cruelly, indeed tragically, and yet the author’s abiding metaphor the sun allows for the possibility of redemption. While some in this transitional South Africa are fully preparing themselves for darkness, Slabolepszy’s wise and moving play makes clear that shared empathy and compassion may in fact illuminate the way for change. Listening to a shaken audience cheer the performance, one readily agreed. South Africa’s theatre, like the country around it, may by its own admission be groping in the dark, but Mooi Street Moves suggests that the end of the tunnel may as Nelson Mandela promised three years ago soon let in long-overdue light.