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Southern Africa Report Archive

Out of the ashes of protest theatre, South African theatre is blossoming with new themes, provocative stories and daring new directors. Lena Slachmuijlder surveys the theatre scene, but highlights the risk of weak developmental initiatives. (jbv)

vol 14 no 2

Re-defining relevance: the new South African theatre
Lena Slachmuijlder

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 2, March 1999
Page 18



Lena Slachmuijlder is a freelance writer and musician based in Durban.

Out of the ashes of protest theatre, South African theatre is blossoming with new themes, provocative stories and daring new directors. Lena Slachmuijlder surveys the theatre scene, but highlights the risk of weak developmental initiatives.

As an amplifier of the struggle for liberation, South African protest theatre transported the voice of freedom fighters across the stages of townships and the world. It produced great names such as Gibson Kente and Mbongeni Ngema and trained a generation of talent; yet in its final phase, the fact that it had become synonymous with the liberation struggle raised questions about its lifespan once that battle was no longer.

Five years after the country's first democratic all-race elections, new themes, new names, and new styles are emerging from South African theatre. An encouraging portrait is being composed of an industry insisting on redefining itself, by responding to, reflecting and provoking the society in which it exists. Contemporary social issues, previously politicised historical events, cultural treasures and personal stories are being developed and staged by artists intent on proving their artistry without drifting away from the reality that created them.

Social issues such as domestic violence, crime, unemployment and alcoholism, which would have been deemed irrelevant during the era of "protest theatre," have been explored afresh. One example within the last year is Aubrey Sekhabi's `On My Birthday', a startling expose of domestic violence and adultery set in a black middle-class environment. Another is Thulani Mtshali's `Weemen', which highlighted domestic abuse, yet with an ending that showed a victim empowered enough to support the abuser through his process of rehabilitation.

Perhaps the most acclaimed example of highlighting contemporary issues was Sello Maake ka-Ncube's `Koze Kuse Bash', which ran at Johannesburg's Market Theatre early last year. A stark portrayal of urban township partying, the play unwinds to reveal how the innocent search for a good time can lead to tragedy and broken dreams. "It was an authentic reflection of urban youth culture," comments freelance arts critic Sandile Ngidi, "and it had a provocative message that asked, `And then what?' "

Similarly provocative was Johnny Loate's `Cabbages and Bullets', which won the Windybrow Arts Festival FNB Vita Award. `Cabbages and Bullets' tells the story of two unemployed ex-Mkhonto weSizwe guerrillas who feel their struggle has gone unrecognised. They turn to drugs, alcohol and crime out of frustration, pointing a finger of blame at a government sometimes criticised for over-emphasising reconciliation at the expense of improving the plight of the very people whose efforts created a climate where reconciliation could exist.

"There is an emphasis on reconciliation politically, but artists feel a need to go beyond this, unpack it," says Ngidi. "They cannot live on reconciliation alone - they are questioning the paradigm."

To a large extent, these directors' works have been successful in drawing audiences. Sekhabi is an example of the type of new directors who are producing relevant, yet commercially successful work. His production `Not With My Gun', described by one critic as "mainstream with a message," had a successful run at the Market Theatre's main stage in August last year. Telling the story of a white burglar breaking in on a celebration of four young black middle class guys, the drama spotlights issues of revenge, morality, and the new relationships that characterise this period of South African history.

These productions signal that new writers and directors recognise their emergence from the era of `protest theatre,' while appreciating that audiences are no longer looking for the `amandla' message. Audiences that previously patronised the `theatre of the struggle' want to be entertained, yet without being transported into a fantasy land that fails to recognise the daily grappling with the hardships the new dispensation has inherited, and the disappointment and cynicism that its high expectations have created.

More than simply playing with new social themes, such as homosexuality or the fascinating blending of multi-cultural urban communities, these new works highlight the schizophrenia that is prevalent in South Africa's contemporary political make-up. Concern about women's continued oppression by society's patriarchal assumptions, or doubts about the honesty of the public process of reconciliation are real issues directly linked to the struggle for liberation.

Ngema looks to history

Unravelling the past as a way of paving the path to the future has become an increasingly prominent theme for some stalwarts of the protest theatre era, such as Mbongeni Ngema of `Sarafina' fame. Ngema sees less urgency in reflecting the contemporary social issues than in exploring previously manipulated, misinterpreted and even hidden events in South African history. "I see a lot of the work in Jo'burg dealing with stories of today, things like hijacking, etc, but I feel that we need to educate our people about the past," he explains. "There are incredible stories in our past - just imagine the Zulu amabutho meeting up with modern war technology, fighting back with spears, and winning?"

Ngema's current work-in-progress, `The Zulu', deals with precisely that history. Scheduled to premiere in Germany in May this year, `The Zulu' recounts the Anglo-Zulu war and the famous confrontation at Isandlwana when the Zulu amabutho defeated the British army. "I believe we have a duty to inform our own kids," says Ngema, recounting a recent visit to the family of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, where the family was astounded to hear some of the stories about history that directly featured members of their own ancestral lineage.

Ngema's production, and other works, such as Thulani Nyembe's musical `Bozzoli ... like Pantsula ... like Mshoza', linking urban dance culture with recent decades of political activism, feed directly into the need for South Africans to bolster pride in their African identity. This is a definitively political need, as without it the radical changes necessary in this period of transformation will be impossible. Even amidst the controversy over the sincerity of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki's commitment to the `African Renaissance' concept, there is a recognition that Africans and Black South Africans at large have to find strength and insight into their identity through their history and culture.

Achieving this while still attracting audiences to the theatre requires skill and imaginative theatrical approaches. Thirty-three year old Bheki Mkhwane is an example of a theatre practitioner who feels liberated by the transcendence of the protest theatre era. His work, which he describes as aimed at "inspiring the audience's imagination," is developed through a workshopping process that results in a script-less production. It is about "an interesting moment on stage - not a good script, not a good story, not good acting." His approach has won him an audience and critical acclaim: last year Mkhwane scooped up seven FNB Vita awards including Best Actor in his own one-man show `Solomon's Pride' and Best New Play for "Sitting Around the Fire," which he created and directed.

But does Mkhwane feel burdened by an obligation to address pressing social problems in his work? "I don't find it a burden, but rather a challenge," he replies. "Theatre is a mirror of the community and its social problems."

Ngidi is encouraged by the spate of new young talent in the industry. "Young actors are no longer pigeonholed into township theatre. There is more artistic finesse, the divide between black and white actors is decreasing," he argues. "Increasingly, the artist is being seen from a black perspective, but also as a universal being."

Emphasis on craft

An emphasis on enhanced craft is essential to keep the audience's attention, says Madoda Ncayiyana, an award-winning writer, director and actor, who now focuses primarily on writing and producing drama for radio and television. "People are looking very much at their own stories, those that never got a chance to be told. But in a way they are not daring, very simple and thus have to have a fine art to appeal to the audience," explains Ncayiyana. "With protest theatre, the audience knew the subject so well ... now there is more of a challenge."

Ncayiyana points out that there's a lot of humour in new works, nearly all of which revolves around the different relationships emerging in the `Rainbow Nation.' "This is still safe. We need to be thinking always where we want to lead the audience to, how we can challenge them."

As a writer for radio drama, which has a long history and exceptionally dedicated listenership, particularly on the African language radio stations, Ncayiyana recognises different needs in a radio audience. "Radio drama has been very conservative over the years," he says. "Now is the time to tackle themes that have previously been taboo."

Using this popular format to change attitudes and behaviour around issues such as violence, AIDS/HIV and human rights is a priority of Vuleka Productions, an independent radio production company which Ncayiyana co-directs. A recent example is a 30-episode radio drama of Vuleka's, entitled `Ingoma kaMama' (Mama's Song), which highlights taxi wars, conflicts between South Africans and African immigrants, and the rural/urban and generational divide. But the message underlying the highly entertaining production is one promoting peaceful methods of resolving conflict, breathing a fresh new approach into a genre otherwise reserved for tales of witchcraft, gangsterism and other sensational, but educationally empty, stories.

Using drama for educational purposes is another increasingly popular trend in theatre, as well as radio and television. Now in its fourth year, the Stop Crime Drama Festival, initiated in Gauteng province, will this year go national in an attempt to encourage talent from all nine provinces. In television, at least three current or upcoming drama series build on social/educational aims, such as health education or participatory democracy. Riding on the success of series like `Soul City' (around AIDS/HIV) and `Khululeka' (human rights/democracy), comes `Yizo Yizo', which aims to present a hard look at educational problems in a township setting.

Sour portrait of development

This sweet picture of the theatre scene turns sour when one examines the developmental side. Training and development of new talent hasn't progressed to people's expectations. The apex of creative work is Johannesburg, where three major theatres are encouraging and promoting new works through initiatives such as the Young Directors Festival. Other city centres, such as Durban, present a much less glamorous cultural landscape, with former state cultural bodies half-way transformed or not at all, and few opportunities for previously excluded voices.

Ngema, appointed to head the musical drama department of the former state-sponsored Natal Performing Arts Council in Durban, now the Playhouse Company, admits that he has done minimal work in this area through his official post. He blames the Playhouse Company, saying, "It was set up to deliver to the new South Africa but it is still run like in the past. I hope that we can do more in future."

The casualties of this lack of new opportunities are people such as Zeph Nzama, director of the Durban-based Mbumba Artists. A stalwart of the grassroots community theatre initiatives that have nurtured new talents and sustained themselves with industrial and educational theatre, Nzama is disillusioned with changes in the last few years.

"There are new faces in senior posts, but they don't do much to give people chances or access to resources," he says. "We need to put our work on stage, but we don't have that chance. In Johannesburg, the Market and Civic Theatre do a lot, but here in Durban there is nothing like that. The Playhouse Company hardly puts on work from the community; it is all white productions."

Mkhwane is equally critical of current attempts to develop new talent. He points to the absence of top talent being produced by the universities and technikons, blaming their overemphasis on theory rather than practical work. He has similarly harsh words for some top directors, accusing them of "robbing" people of their raw talent, without developing it further.

Mkhwane dreams of someday starting his own `culture house', whereby a fund would be allocated to various creative initiatives, with young artists working alongside more experienced artists. He yearns for more opportunities to create and direct new work with upcoming talent, so that he can encourage them to adopt his creative methods. "There is too much emphasis on words and script and direction," says Mkhwane, nonetheless defending the discipline his approach requires.

The risk inherent in the developmental shortcomings of this blossoming theatre industry lies in its potential to become elitist and reach a tiny minority of viewers. In order for the inspiring work to inspire others, it needs to be seen on stages across all of South Africa's urban centres and beyond. Without that, eight out of nine of South Africa's provinces will end up being drained of its theatrical talents, as they join the `flood to Johannesburg' in search of greener pastures.

Hopefully, the changing face of television and radio drama will feed off the new directions of the theatre industry, and vice-versa. Redefining the content of `protest theatre', while retaining and improving on the craft is the crux of the challenge facing new directors. Fortunately, high standards of the era of `protest theatre' have developed a demanding and critical audience, which judging from its support of some of the new works, appreciates seeing its own emotional and political grappling portrayed realistically, thoughtfully and skilfully on stage. The South African theatre industry will be poorer if it does not rise to the demands of this audience, and instead resigns itself to the purely commercial realm of entertainment and sensation, which characterises the theatre sphere in the majority of urban centres in the Western world. Certainly there is enough dramatic, musical and dance talent to sustain a purely commercial theatre industry. But such theatre would end up tragically neglecting the difficult yet critical emerging agenda that the new-found liberation presents to all South African artists.

As recent works have demonstrated, exploring the complex and difficult questions arising from the new-found freedom, seeking strength and clarity from the tortured South African past, and giving space and support to imaginative new and previously hidden talent can, and hopefully will, secure contemporary South African theatre its place as an evolutionary successor to `protest theatre'.

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