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Author: Deon Opperman
Title: Revolution and conscience: South African theater, June 1976 to February 1990
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Revolution and conscience: South African theater, June 1976 to February 1990
Deon Opperman

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 5, pp. 14-16, 1993
Author Biography: Deon Opperman is a South African playwright and graduate student in the Department of Radio/TV/Film of Northwestern University.

Revolution and conscience: South African theater, June 1976 to February 1990

Deon Opperman

Why June 1976 to February 1990?

Ian Steadman, one of the leaders in contemporary South African theater research, writes that "the events of 16 June 1976, when black schoolchildren crystallized generations of black discontent by turning protest into active resistance, were symptomatic of radical developments in political and cultural relations and make that a watershed year in many ways." [1] This uprising of children in South Africa's black townships took place in a context of cultural resistance that had developed over the preceding decade and a half. Building on a theatrical practices of autonomy, accommodation, and opposition that had developed by the time of the Soweto rising, a theater of resistance and revolution flourished until February 1990. I would like to offer an overview of South African theater and its historical context before and after June 1976 which includes observations about changes in structure and style of performance, the organizations and theater practitioners themselves, and the changes in South African theater after February 1990.

A Question of terminology

First, what is South African theater? The question evokes the response: what is theater? This simple question is central to even a cursory examination of the performance traditions of South Africa.

To the person approaching the question from the Euro-centric paradigm, "theater" is understood within the context of the evolution of the stage from Greco-Roman amphitheaters to the proscenium arch of the present day. All performance traditions before the construction of the first performance space that was recognizably a "stage" are lumped together as a kind of pre-history of the theater, "primitive" by today's standards, and are summarily dismissed as " 'pre-logical', 'pre-industrial', or/and 'pre-literate' in one breath." [2] Likewise, the cultures and attendant performance traditions of pre-colonial Africa, under the yoke of European imperialism—and suffering that "slur of primitivism and moral inferiority cast upon indigenous culture by whites" [3]—have, in their turn, been ignored, co-opted, suppressed, and in many instances, wiped out. At the very least, until recently they have not been considered a subject worthy of serious consideration.

But things have changed, and today it is the word "theater" that finds itself in the dock. In South Africa, as in most Western countries, the limitations implicit in the term "theater" have resulted in its increased disuse in favor of the broader and all-inclusive "performance"— performance studies, performance area (as opposed to stage); performance criticism, etc. After all, how does one measure the performance of Zulu izibongo praise poetry, or Xhosa iintsomi folk narratives [4], or Sotho tsomo folk narratives, and the multitude of African mimetic and imitative dance performances, with a yardstick cut according to the dictates of Aristotle's Poetics? And yet, until the late '70s, that is precisely what happened in South Africa.

A definition of theater, and by extension, South African theater, must therefore be broad enough to do justice to all the performance traditions of South Africa: "Any work created in or by or about South Africans or with reference to any individual shaped by a South African sensibility...." [5] And that is about as broad as one could hope to go. Of course, within the boundaries of this necessarily all-encompassing definition, there are a number of independent streams, fed, as it were, by the rain of this "South African sensibility." But before I identify these streams, let me make it clear that, once again, I am fully aware of the dangers attendant upon such reduction and compartmentalisation, and that these streams are identified with the full realization that there is much mingling between them. Indeed, it would be more appropriate to adjust the metaphor to that of different currents in the same river. I refer, of course, to the notions "Black theater," "Afrikaans theater," and "English theater."

These three main currents of South African theater are distinguished for the sake of argument and clarity. Furthermore, it is precisely because of the separatist ideology in which they evolved, that they stand side by side (in the period demarcated in this essay), as three quite distinct and separate performance histories and practices, shaped by particular social, economic, and political determinants. Coplan sums up this sensitive issue when he says that to deny the reality of ethnic consciousness and discourse or to reduce it entirely to an epiphenomenon of ideological, political and socio-economic forces and conflicts is to mistake its sources, contradict empirical evidence, and deny Africans the right to mobilize their cultural resources in ways that make the most sense to them. [6]

However, it is also true that the terms "Black theater," "Afrikaans theater," and "English theater" are problematic and demand further qualification.

Writing about South African theater is a task fraught with a multitude of semiotic and semantic pitfalls. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate one's way over a landscape so densely strewn with cultural icons and taboos without treading on many emotional, intellectual, and moral toes. Controversy ranges from the broadest ideological differences of interpretation and opinion, to whether or not a particular word should be rendered with its first letter in the upper or lower case. Such a word is the "black" in "Black theater", a label which, Keyan Tomaselli argues, obfuscates the more cogent influences and deeper underlying processes consequent upon apartheid society, which has brought about the label in the first place. "The terminological division of theater and drama in South Africa into "black," "white, "Afrikaans," etc., comfortably perpetuates the idea of dualisms in society on the sub-continent ... In the absence of a more scientific term, most commentators are guilty of imposing the label "black theater" ... which carries little thought of relationship, process or complexity of inter-actions between the economic base and ideological superstructure." [7]

What Tomaselli does not offer us is a suitable alternative. It is not enough simply to refer to the "absence of a more scientific term." In the debates around the study of South African theater, "Black theater" has had many names, including: people's theater, popular theater, committed theater, alternative theater, protest theater, and township theater. But despite the subtle variations of emphasis these names represent (as eloquently pointed out by Coplan) [8], they have all meant one thing in the period in question: theater against Apartheid and all the evils thereof. It is an acceptable generalization, I think, to say that from 1976 to 1990 "Black theater" was concerned with little else than the all-consuming call to cultural arms. This was a call of such intensity that any theater not opposing Apartheid, could not be regarded as protest theater, or committed theater, or any of the other names listed.

But the severe limitations of labels such as "Black theater" become apparent when one considers that white theater practitioners also opposed Apartheid, and made the kind of theater implied by the notion "Black theater." What is Reza de Wet's Diepe Grond (Deep Earth) if not an iconoclastic and devastating (especially for Afrikaners) protest play, not against Apartheid, but against Calvinism and conservativism in the Afrikaner family? Norman Coombes' Snake in the Grass is a committed piece of theater, certainly alternative to the kind of theater that would be seen on the mainstream English stage in South Africa, which indicts colonialism and the out-of-touch aloofness of the white English South African, as did my own play, We All Fall Down. These are not about or against the iniquities of Apartheid, per se, but they must surely be described as protest or committed or alternative theater.

Just as it is unable to lay exclusive claim to content, "Black theater" cannot lay claim to form either. For every Brechtian, episodic, co-created, workshop, collectivist, group facilitated, conscientising play produced by black theater practitioners, one produced by white theater practitioners can be named, not to mention the many white/black collaborations. What is true is that the products of "Black theater," being the voice of a people sorely oppressed, received (understandably) tremendous international attention and support. But protest was not the exclusive domain of black South Africans. Nor is the only valid protest play one that protests Apartheid. To say otherwise is to be guilty of a terminological imperialism akin to the cultural and political imperialism embodied in Apartheid.

And yet, the term seems to stick. "This is not", says Coplan, "simply due to the politics of race or semiotic inertia, but to the implicit popular recognition of who this theater is really for and about." [9] The fact of the matter is that rather than denoting and laying exclusive claim to a particular content or form, "Black theater" is ultimately (to recall and modify Steadman's original definition) any work created in or by or about black South Africans or with reference to any individual shaped by a black South African sensibility. Having accepted "black" as referring to human beings, and not a performance style, one must acknowledge that the identity-effacing description of all Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho and other indigenous nations as "black," denies a vast array of rich and diverse cultures, with much in common and much that makes each quite unique. That it was part of the Apartheid agenda to stress these cultures' differences and de-emphasize what they had in common, however, must not cause one to deny cultural diversity for fear of perpetuating separatist thinking. The differences must be respected and that which is shared, nurtured. The baby must not be thrown out with the bathwater.

The same arguments could be brought to bear upon the notions "Afrikaans theater" and "English theater." Most "Black theater" was predominantly presented in English. The so-called Coloureds [10], classified as "non-white", produced "Black theater" in Afrikaans. Therefore, Afrikaans theater, for the purposes of this paper, is understood to refer to any work created in or by or about white Afrikaans South Africans or with reference to any individual shaped by a white Afrikaans South African sensibility. The same goes for "English theater."

Black Theater: before 1976

In "The Archeology of Black Theater" [11], VeVe Clark draws on the critical methodology of Michel Foucault. In particular, she uses Foucault's use of archeological methods in the analysis of culture—the notion that "culture is buried in layers" [12]—and also his focus on the things left unsaid in cultural texts and the reasons for their omission. She also writes of the "popular forms that are lost because they are unwritten—in the alphabetical sense." [13] These ideas are useful in appreciating the "holes" in South/African performance history, subjected as it was to the cultural colonization imposed upon it by Europeans. Not only did these colonizers ignore or scorn indigenous cultures, and, in many instances, suppress them as barbaric or subversive, they also brought the most potent of all weapons: the written word. Cultural colonization proceeded from the western system of schooling and education, a system which has the ability to read and write as its hub. [14]

With the imposition of the cultural tool of the written word came the imposition and ultimate hegemony of the culture encoded by and within that tool. Cultural practices founded on an oral tradition are buried or obliterated when subsumed by cultures in which survival depends on literacy.

Such was the case with African performance traditions in South Africa, where very little record remains of what must have been a rich and diverse performance tradition. Research of these performance traditions has been dependent on "the records provided by early travellers, on the oral history of the culture, and on creative extrapolation from present-day remnants of past events." [15] This research has identified a number of elements that characterized precolonial performance, which was symbolic in form and ritual in purpose. These elements included the use of little or no setting; the inclusion of musical accompaniment (often singing); some improvisation; interaction with the audience; dance forms that were distinctive, not only in their physical attributes, but in their function within the total performance. [16] These basic elements, sublimated as they may have been, found their way into and significantly informed the style of Black theater from 1976 to 1990.

From the onset of permanent European settlement in the Southern African region in 1652, missionaries, traders, and the movement of other white, black, and "coloured" transfrontiersmen produced a cultural cross-fertilization. It was only in the late 19th century, however, that European culture achieved a level of control, stability, and hegemony. But this "European" culture had diverged from its origins; new identities had emerged within a settler population separated by time and distance from overseas homelands. It was in the contexts of cultural cross-fertilization and cultural hegemony imposed by settlers themselves possessed of new colonial identities that, in the 20th century, a black theater, in the Western sense of the word, began to emerge.

Especially after the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1901), an urban culture developed in the cities and towns of the gold, diamond and coal mining districts. Apartheid had not yet been given shape, or even a name; although racial prejudice and separatist ideology were pervasive, a great deal of cultural cross-fusion also took place. From early in the 19th century, missions and mission schools had introduced the English theatrical tradition—with its predilection for farce, revues, comedies and the occasional "serious" classical play—to the "native" peoples, who produced black amateur theater. Out of this evolved such troupes as Esau Metetwa's Lucky Stars of 1927, the first black troupe, which performed sketches in Zulu structured along European lines, including pieces such as Umthakati (Witch) and Ukuqomisa (Courting). Eight years later, Herbert Dhloma produced the first black play in English, The Girl Who Killed To Save (1935). But not until the 1950s did a truly recognizable black theater take shape.

Established in the late 1950s, the Union of African Artists produced the first "township musical," King Kong. [17]. Based on the meteoric rise and tragic downfall of black South African heavyweight boxing champion Ezekiel "King Kong" Dhlamini, it was a spectacular commercial and critical success, with a subsequent tour to London. Coplan has showed the significance of King Kong [18]: it embodied the faith of black and white liberals that progress could come through creative multiracial collaboration in the cultural field; it gave black performers a chance in international performance; while depriving the black townships of outstanding talents by reinforcing the orientation of theatrical effort towards foreign recognition at the expense of a popular theater for black communities, it also helped ignite the flame of popular theater in the townships.

This flame was fanned by perhaps the most successful theatrical producer in South Africa today, Gibson Kente, who, in 1963, wrote, composed, produced, and directed his first musical, Manana, The Jazz Prophet. Since then, Kente and other black commercial playwright/directors like Sam Mhangwane and Boykie Mohlamme "have created a unique style of presentation that smoothly integrates music, dance and social drama in a characteristically visible and energetic manner ... with powerful emotions expressed physically, almost acrobatically, in the rhythmical blend of farce and pathos, song, dance and mime that is the essence of theatricality in the African tradition." [19] Traditional performance techniques can be seen traced in the "black" interpretation and rendition of western theatrical forms. [20]

The enactment of increasingly repressive and racist legislation from the 1950s, including harsh censorship laws, contributed to a severely polarized society in which cross-cultural collaboration became very difficult. The most prominent theater practitioner to resist these forces was Athol Fugard, who, since 1958 with the production of his play Nongogo in the Rehearsal Room in Dorkay House, Johannesburg, had been an active force in black theater. In the 1960s, together with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, he established the Serpent Players in Port Elizabeth and the Circle Players in Cape Town. But in 1965 all racially mixed casts and integrated audiences were banned, laws which dampened Fugard's (and others') collaboration with black theater practitioners for a number of years. Indeed, from 1965 to 1972, Fugard's work was almost exclusively concerned with the white experience in South Africa, and was performed by whites only: People are Living There, Hello and Goodbye, Boesman and Lena. This changed in 1972, with the Serpent Players' production of Fugard's Sizwe Banzi is Dead. [21]

Until 1971-72, township theater was not explicitly politicized. The plays reflected everyday black urban life, presenting the consequences of Apartheid without challenging it, so that until "the appearance of Gibson Kente's play, How Long?, Township theater was consistently unradical ... There followed I Believe and Too Late, also by Kente ... [and] in 1975 the Rev. Mzwandile Maqina's Give Us This Day ... These plays, and others they inspired, were overtly political." [22] The radicalization of theater between 1972 and 1975 was largely due to the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement which advocated black self-reliance and self-respect, and "stressed the political function of cultural and artistic activity and was itself especially active in exploiting the political resources of theater." [23] Consequently, black students and artists "began to forsake foreign avant-garde models of recent 'serious' theater in favor of black material—American, West African or Caribbean—and their own adaptations or indeed creation of material relevant to the black experience in South Africa." [24]

It is not possible here to do justice to the many people and groups that were active in this period, and a simple mention must suffice to suggest the extent and diversity of the flowering of "committed" or "alternative" theater in the early 1970s. This period, leading up to June 1976, saw mounting state control and police action in the form of banning orders, detention without trial, harassment and torture. Many of the theater and cultural groups were silenced or disbanded a year or two after their inception.

Besides Kente and Fugard, prominent practitioners included Bob Leshoai, Connie Mabaso, Alton Khumalo, Bloke Modisane, Zakes Mokae, Barney Simon and The Phoenix Players (active since 1967), Experimental Theater Workshop '71, The Space (1972), People's Experimental Theater (1973), numerous "fly-by-night" township groups that assembled for single productions, and ultimately, The Market Theater, established in 1976, the year of the Soweto Uprising.

1976 and after

The 1976 Soweto Uprising wrought an irrevocable shift in consciousness of all South Africans. Energy surged through Black theater. This was reminiscent of the brief period of similar enthusiasm and optimism that characterized the arts in Russia after October 1917, particularly the cinema (cf. the agitprop trains), and Lenin's faith in the arts as an instrument to transform society. But in South Africa the insurgents had won a battle but most certainly not yet won the war. Black theater was not riding on the wave of victory, but had emerged as an important weapon in the continuing struggle. Indeed, with the passing of power from Prime Minister B. J. Vorster to P. W. Botha—who appointed himself president with executive powers, and who subsequently, in the mid-1980s, announced a State of Emergency—the theater became one of the last voices permitted to speak after the media and other avenues of protest had effectively been silenced.

Why the theater was allowed to continue, when other voices of protest were banned, imprisoned, murdered, exiled, and tortured is a question frequently debated. A popular explanation—perhaps the most convincing—is that the government used theater, and Black theater in particular, as evidence for their argument before world opinion that conditions within South Africa were not truly repressive. But while the Market Theater and other groups were permitted to mount productions of radical protest and even to tour abroad, plays that threatened to gather popular support in the townships were severely restricted and quickly silenced. Workshop '71's Survival, which was permitted to perform in the Box Theater at the University of the Witwatersrand, and also to tour California, was banned as soon as it became popular in the townships.

The state responded unequally to the two main arenas of post-1976 black theater: the "legitimate" theater presented primarily in white theaters or with white collaboration and mediation to mixed but predominantly white audiences in such venues as the Market Theater, the Baxter Theater and numerous fringe venues; and the "illegitimate" [25] theater presented primarily in the townships to predominantly black audiences, the only white audience members being the occasional theater researcher or "alternative" layman. Says Tomaselli,

Plays which are unable to draw on the resources of professional publicity agents are almost never reviewed ... It is not surprising, therefore, that white South Africans [were] unaware of a vibrant, healthy and expanding dramatic activity going on in the smokey polluted back-streets of black townships and squatter camps. It is thus entirely predictable that the last to know of these are the critics and students of drama and theater. [26]

The problem of inaccessibility is further exacerbated because of the oral, non-literary nature of many of these performances for which no records exist.

These arenas of production, however, were not mutually exclusive. Indeed, most practitioners moved between the two as the need or opportunity arose. A recognizable pattern developed in the movement of "hit" township plays to the Market Theater, and—for a lucky handful—abroad to the international prominence and financial rewards of the West End and Broadway and other European circuits. The outstanding instance is the millions made by Nbogeni Ngema with Sarafina, which is about the Soweto Uprising.

But such circulation from origins in the townships was not just a question of fame and fortune. Practitioners like Maishe Maponya and Matsemela Manaka, founders of two prominent post-1976 theater companies, the Bahumutsi Drama Group and Soyikwa African Theater Company, regarded overseas exposure as a necessary counterbalance to the "Black" theater created and exported through the mediation of whites. Maponya was quoted in the press: "We hope to bring about change by depicting true incidents and situations ... [and] to stop white playwrights representing us in our theater." [27] (The most notable such "white playwright" was, of course, Fugard. [28]) Nevertheless, despite their rationale to the contrary, many black practitioners such as Maponya, Manaka, and Ngema have been criticized by hardcore leaders of "the struggle" for deserting the cause and capitalising on the suffering of the oppressed.

Structure and style

Whether in the township or in the Market Theater, from 1976 Black theater evolved a methodology of performance techniques that may be seen as firmly in the tradition of protest theater as expounded in Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed. No less, Black theater also had, through the influence of older African performance techniques, a unique character. This kind of theater is referred to as "workshop." Mark Fleischman, in his essay "Workshop theater as oppositional form" [29], outlines the characteristics of South African workshop theater:

1. It is made by a group of people together, as opposed to being written by a single playwright in isolation;

2. It is made for performance and has more to do with life than with literature. A workshop play cannot therefore be easily published as the text is not easily divorced from the performance. Any published version of a workshop play is only a crystallization of a process at one particular stage of that process;

3. It has a structural form which is unique and draws on traditional oral forms;

4. It has a particular performance style, generic to the South African townships, which is non-naturalistic, physical, musical and larger than life;

5. It combines various performance forms such as music, narrative and dance within the context of a single performance;

6. It has more to do with the collective subject than with the individual subject of Western drama;

7. It is an essentially urban form of cultural expression, rooted in the urban experience of South Africa, and is overtly political in nature;

8. It displays an ironic comic vision which is both regenerative in the face of the essential tragedy of the South African situation, and transformative in its ability to estrange power structures through grotesque parody.

To these features I might add that, characteristically, two or three actors play many parts. Furthermore, the influence of Brecht is to be felt in almost all of this work, an influence that was in some respects inevitable as practitioners sought a suitable performance methodology to articulate a Marxist-influenced message, as did Brecht. They also borrowed some of the "poor" theater techniques pioneered by Grotowski, as well as various Latin-American techniques as described by Augusto Boal, and the parallels with the rough, improvisatory commedia del arte should be noted as well. The important point is that this work, at bottom, is political protest theater, and as such it has drawn upon, and can be positioned within, international models that share same concerns and goals. [30]

Theater organizations and practitioners [31]

Many plays exemplify these structural and stylistic devices. For the purposes of this essay, an overview of a few of the more prominent plays, playwrights, and theater organizations must suffice.

Leading the way, since the 1960s, is Gibson Kente. Despite his huge commercial success, or perhaps because of it, Kente has seldom ventured beyond the domains of the townships. For almost thirty years he has produced popular "popular" theater—melodramatic and broad musicals filled with the recognizable facts of township life that pack in audiences wherever he goes. He has walked a fine line between political irrelevance and detention. Kente's life and work in many ways typify the contradiction of the capitalist ethic and resistance in underprivileged and oppressed societies, where Marxist ideology takes natural root: on the one hand, art is expected to serve the people and be subordinated to struggle against the conditions of oppression; on the other hand, a hit is a hit, and every person for him/herself. Kente is a businessman; he is also a black man in South Africa. Ideologically, the two are not always an easy match.

Matsemela Manaka, founder of the Soyikwa African Theater Company, was born and raised in the township of Alexandra, and in the 1980s lived in Diepkloof, Soweto. Although he operated independently of white managements and capital, Manaka has presented some of his work at the Market Theater, Johannesburg. In fact, as Steadman points out, Manaka rose to prominence at the age of 24 when his play, Egoli (1979), was presented at the Erlangen Drama Festival in West Germany. In 1981, the play was banned by the Publications Control Board. Other plays include Imbumba (1980), Pula (1982), Vuka (1983) and Children of Asazi (1984). His plays embody the principles laid out above: they are co-scripted, improvised works which make intense use of the actor's body, and use mime, song, dance, minimal properties, theatrical images and metaphors, direct addresses to the audience, and an episodic structure.

Maishe Maponya, founder of the Bahumutsi Drama Group, also lived in Soweto. As an example of independent black underground South African theater, his first play, The Hungry Earth (1980), was invited to Britain and West Germany. Once again, dance, song and mime are used extensively. But like Manaka, Maponya produced most of his work in the townships, thus performing for the people who were the subject of his work. Other works by him include: Umongikazi (1983) and Dirty Work and Gangsters (1984).

The work of the Reverend Mzwandile Maqina reveals the conditions which are responsible for the dearth of literary records of many Black plays. Constantly harassed and arrested by the security police, Maqina realized that a play which exists only in the memory of the performers is less easily traced and banned, and consequently he kept no written record of much of his work. Maqina was first noticed when he wrote and produced Give Us This Day in 1975, which dealt with the assassination of Black Consciousness leader, Abraham Tiro. After a second banning term in 1983, he created Dry Those Tears, about the death of a young black man and his struggle to find employment in a racist bureaucracy. Maqina does not rely on any white capital or subsidy, and tours the townships, performing in church and community halls.

Nbogeni Ngema, co-author of Woza Albert (1983) and Black Dog (1984) with Percy Mtwa and Barney Simon, is an example of a practitioner who began in the townships and has since made his way to Broadway and Hollywood. His "township musical" Sarafina (1989) has been running for a number of years, and was recently made into a film starring Whoopi Goldberg.

Other playwrights include Dukuza Macu, A Matter of Conscience (1975), Night of the Long Wake (1983); Fatima Dike, The Sacrifice of Kreli (1976), The First South African (date?); Zanemvula ("Zakes") Mda, We Shall Sing For The Fatherland (1978), Dark Voice Ring (1978-79), The Hill (1979, for which he received the Amstell Playwright of the Year Award), The Road (1982); The Cape Community Arts Project's all-woman production Wathint' Abafazi, Wathint' Imbokotho (You Strike the Women, You Strike the Rock, 1986).

In addition to these playwrights and their work, the rise of organized black labor prompted the development of the Trade Union Theater as a project of theater-in-education, an organizing tool for black trade unions. Steadman explains how FOSATU (Federation of South African Trade Unions) and CUSA (Council of Unions of South Africa) "presented trade union plays which involve workers as actors enacting scenes from plays based on their shop-floor experiences and directed at educating workers about the underlying structures of control in industry. Such plays present a view from within the workplace." [32] Two plays which became popular enough so that they went on tour to industrial sites around the country were Ilanga Lizophunela Abasebenzi (The Sun Shall Rise for the Workers) and a piece that came to be known as The Dunlop Worker's Play. The former was eventually turned into a "professional" production in 1980 by The Junction Avenue Theater Company.

Finally, though established and controlled by two white theater practitioners, Mannie Manim and Barney Simon, the Market Theater must be acknowledged as a major force in Black theater in South Africa during this period. Opening with a production of The Seagull in 1976 and "finding [its] own voice" [33] in 1979 with Simon's workshop production, Cincinnati, the Market Theater gained international stature with Black and multicultural plays such as Woza Albert!, Black Dog, Born in the RSA, Asinimali, Bopha, The Hungry Earth, and Wathint' Abafazi, Wathint' Imbokotho. The Market Theater emerged as the "legitimate" voice of opposition to the state-funded arts councils and provided a high-profile venue for all theater practitioners—black and white—operating within the "protest" theater movement and outside the state-controlled theater organizations. But there were problems. In 1984 the Directorate of Publications restricted the performance of Maponya's The Hungry Earth to designated theaters. The Market Theater was one of the venues listed as acceptable, "the implication being that the Market Theater [was] regarded by the state as a neutral cultural haven which, by providing a showcase for political theater, serv[ed] to defuse any politically sensitive play. [Did] the state, in other words, view the Market Theater as a middle class institution which [had] co-opted black political expression and turned it into artistic commodity?" [34]

Another problem, which grew into an active debate in the 1980s, was akin to the dilemma that faced Russian performance and art in general during the period of social realism—the raising of ideological concerns above artistic or formalistic concerns, resulting in "emotionally charged theater" which is applauded "as long as the actor is saying the right thing, in a political and demagogic sense. This can foster rousing speeches, but unimaginative and unoriginal theater." [35]

As the decade came to an end, the white South African audience that had been overwhelmed by the power of Black theater in the first ten years after 1976 and suffered from decades of white guilt, began to lay aside that guilt and no longer looked past boring, patronizing, and didactic theater to the "relevant" message it carried. In a sense, the white audience had been emotionally purged and began to lose interest. On the other hand, until February 1990 Black theater in the townships still served the very real and essential function it had emerged to fulfill in the 1970s—the people were not liberated yet.

The Theater after February 1990

February 1990 changed the face of South African politics forever. The effect on the theater was immediate and transformative. The issues which had been clear-cut and black and white became very clouded and grey. Protest theater had in one fell swoop been robbed of its primary target. At the National Festival of the Arts held in Grahamstown every year—a good barometer of a large sector of the primarily white South African alternative theater scene—the consequences of De Klerk's actions were all too evident. Productions were vague and unsure, and the general feeling was that South African theater, as represented by the work at the festival, had lost its way. The consternation was tangible. For fifteen years, theater practitioners in South Africa had the rare pleasure of producing work that was almost, as Peter Brook calls for in The Empty Space, as necessary as eating and sex. In the mid-1980s, a period of severe curtailment of freedom of speech in South Africa, theater was one of the last voices able to speak what could otherwise not be spoken. The grit in the oyster, that had caused so much suffering and out of that suffering produced so many pearls, was gone.

What the future will bring one cannot say. I do not doubt, however, that a theater born of oppression and which, at a moment of profound crisis, was one of the last voices of conscience of a nation, has the tenacity to survive the transformation into a theater of freedom.

1. Ian Steadman, "Stages in the Revolution: Black South African Theatre since 1976," Research in African Literature, 1988, 19 (1):24.

2. VeVe A. Clark, "The Archeology of Black Theatre," Critical Arts, 1981, 2(1):36.

3. David Coplan, "Dialectics of Tradition in South African Black Popular Theatre," Critical Arts, 1987, 4(3):8.

4. For a thought-provoking account of possible contemporary application of such traditional performance techniques, see Gay Morris, "Theatrical Possibilities of the Traditional Xhosa Iintsomi: What do They Offer Here and Now?" South African Theatre Journal, 1989, 3(2):91-99.

5. Ian Steadman, "Critical Responses to Contemporary South African Theatre," Critical Arts, 1980, 1(3):40.

6. David Coplan, "Editorial: Popular Culture and Performance in Africa," Critical Arts, 1983, 3(1):3.

7. Keyan G. Tomaselli, "The Semiotics of Alternative Theatre in South Africa," Critical Arts, 1981, 2(1):15.

8. For a full discussion see Coplan, op cit. pp. 5-8.

9. ibid. p. 7.

10. I do not endorse the racist implications of this term but use it in the absence of a more precise term to refer to the approximately one million South Africans who share European, African, and Asian ancestry and who speak Afrikaans as their first language.

11. Clark, op cit. pp. 34-50.

12. ibid. p. 35.

13. ibid. p. 36.

14. Temple Hauptfleisch, "From the Savoy to Soweto: The Shifting Paradigm in South African Theatre," South African Theatre Journal, 1988, 2(1):38.

15. ibid. p. 38.

16. These elements are identified in Anthony Graham-White, The Drama of Black Africa (New York, London, Toronto: Samuel French, 1974); Harald Scheub, The Xhosa "Ntsomi" (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975); Peter Larlham, Black Theatre, Dance and Ritual in South Africa (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985).

17. King Kong spawned many "township" musicals of which many—most notably Ipi Tombi—were blatantly exploitative: white managements profiting from marketing cliché-ed images of half-naked singing and dancing "natives" that toured abroad. For a more detailed account of this negative aspect of the township musical, see Anthony Akerman, "Why Must These Shows Go On?: A Critique of Black Musicals Made for White Audiences," Theatre Quarterly, 1977-78, VII (28):67-69.

18. Coplan, op cit. pp. 15-16.

19. ibid. p. 17.

20. The intsomi and izibongo are still to be observed, though in modern form.

21. For an extensive account of Fugard's life and work, see Russel Vandenbrouke's Truths the Hand Can Touch.

22. Robert Mshengu, "After Soweto: People's Theatre and the Political Struggle in South Africa," Theatre Quarterly, 1979, IX (33):34.

23. ibid. p. 34.

24. Robert Mshengu, Theatre and Cultural Struggle in South Africa (London: Zed Books, 1985), p. 53.

25. I use the terms "legitimate" and "illegitimate" aware of the irony that the theatre that I have assigned to the term "illegitimate" was arguably more legitimate. I have done this on purpose, in deference to the fact that—as was the case in the late-17th century English Restoration theatre—"illegitimate" theatre is often so called because it appeals to a much broader public and is consequently a threat to the status quo, which then tries to suppress it by declaring it "illegitimate."

26. Tomaselli, pp. 21-22.

27. East Anglican Times, November 2, 1983, p.2.

28. There is also the well-known debate between John Kani and Athol Fugard regarding the crediting for the authorship of plays like Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island. Kani has asserted that Fugard took (or received and did not decline) more credit for the authorship of these productions than he was entitled to. This ties in with the notion of white theater companies and practitioners riding on the back of black suffering and oppression. The fact is that Fugard and the Market Theatre (and many other South African authors like Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer and others) are recognized for their work against Apartheid. Like the South African political satirist, Pieter-Dirk Uys said: (and I paraphrase) "Everyday I thank the government for writing my scripts."

29. South African Theatre Journal, 1990, 4(1):89.

30. For an comprehensive study see Mike Van Graan, "International Models of Popular and Political Theatre: Some Principles, Functions, Forms, Techniques and Creative Methods and their Possible Relevance to Political Theatre in South Africa," Popular and Political Culture for South Africa (Cape Town: Karen Press, 1987).

31. For the purposes of this overview I draw heavily on the work of Ian Steadman, Temple Hauptfleisch, Keyan Tomaselli and Ann Fuchs, Playing the Market: The Market Theatre, Johannesburg, 1976-1986 (London, New York, Melbourne: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1990).

32. Ian Steadman, "Stages in the Revolution: Black Theatre since 1976," Research in African Literature, 1988, 19(1):29.

33. Mannie Manim, "Journeys of Discovery: Thoughts on theatre in South Africa by Mannie Manim," South African Theatre Journal, 1989, 3(1):78.

34. Steadman, op cit. p. 28.

35. Robert Mshengu, "Tradition and Innovation in the Theatre of Workshop '71", Theatre Quarterly, 1977-78, VII (28):64.

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