South African Theatre

South Africa has a vibrant theatrical scene 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 theaters, 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 helped to produce 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.

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.

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 dramatization 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.

In the 1950s, as the apartheid system put a stranglehold on South Africa, some of the country’s major writers were barred from white theaters and their potential contribution to South African was lost.  But there were some attempts to provide outlets for emerging black talent.  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.

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.

While indigenous theatre was exploding, venues for its performance were not. The state subsidized 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 colored 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 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.

Young people are beginning to come to the theatre as audiences.  New venues, like Cape Town’s Warehouse, 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 program 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.  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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