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Authors : Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Chrisopher Hurst
Title: A Brazilian Theatre Model Meets Zulu Performance Conventions: Westville Prison--The Case in Point
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
June 2005

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Source: A Brazilian Theatre Model Meets Zulu Performance Conventions: Westville Prison--The Case in Point

no. ns 2, June 2005


Mbongiseni Buthelezi, dancer, actor, teacher, playwright, currently graduate student at Columbia University; and Christopher Hurst, lecturer in the Drama and Performance Studies Programme, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban


In July 2002, Christopher Hurst supervised Mbongiseni Buthelezi, a postgraduate student in Drama and Performance Studies, who conducted a Prison Theatre project at the Medium B Prison (a men's maximum security prison) at Westville Prison in Durban. Buthelezi used theatre workshop techniques to create a play that addressed expressions of prejudice towards inmates who are living with HIV/AIDS in the prison. The play re-imagined and utilized Zulu military conventions and combined them with the Brazilian Forum Theatre methods of Augusto Boal. This combination made it possible for the inmate audiences to articulate criticism about the behaviour of prison staff and other inmates that would otherwise have been difficult in the prison context. The performance form was recognised as something altogether new by the Zulu male participants, particularly because of the negotiations of power occasioned by the performance.

In July 2002, five postgraduate students from the Drama and Performance Studies Programme at the University of Natal together with staff members Christopher Hurst and Miranda Young-Jahangeer ran a number of theatre projects in Westville's Medium B Prison, Female Prison, and Durban Youth Centre. The students who participated in these projects, including the co-author of this paper Mbongiseni Buthelezi, were all isiZulu speakers. They report that this learning experience made them draw strongly on their knowledge of Zulu culture and urban working-class society. Through working with the inmates on the project, they came to recognise and re-evaluate their own experiential knowledge of Zulu performance conventions and culture.

The projects drew on Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1996) for the theoretical base and from Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed (2000) for the methodology. They addressed social problems in the prisons and used participative theatre practices to engage the audience in a public problem-solving discussion. Freire and Boal's theories and practices originate in Brazil. They require the audience to engage actively in problem-posing and problem-solving processes. In response to the task of actively engaging the audience, the inmates and students drew on Zulu performance conventions. Using their knowledge of Zulu culture to re-interpret Boal's methods, they created events that enabled audiences to engage in a public discussion around a social topic within the prison context and in a community dominated by isiZulu speakers. This led the students to re-evaluate the potential power of indigenous knowledge and to challenge the marginality of African knowledge systems in their own education experience at the university.

Buthelezi's project was one of two projects that were created with inmates at the Medium B Prison, a men's maximum-security prison in the Westville Prison Management Area in Durban. His project involved six inmates as facilitators and was performed for a group of about 250 inmates. The topic for the Medium B projects was "how to live positively with HIV/AIDS in a maximum security prison". This topic was negotiated and agreed between Hurst, the inmates, and the prison authorities when the course Prison Theatre: Performance Interventions with Offenders was being set up and before the university students became involved in the project.

The collaboration between the Drama and Performance Studies Programme and Westville Prison had evolved over four years and had engaged both the inmate and student communities in performance encounters that challenged them to negotiate boundaries of race, class, language, culture and ethnicity. By 1998, both Westville Prison and the University of Natal were fully involved in responding to the challenges of post-apartheid transformation processes. After 1994, the Department of Correctional Services engaged in a process of transformation, a component of which included the introduction of cultural recreational activities in prisons. This initiative reflected a shift towards rehabilitation in the policies of the Department of Correctional Services. The activities that the Department of Correctional Services introduced in 1996 primarily involved music, singing, traditional dance, and in certain instances, included theatre.

The two students working at Medium B Prison ran their projects for a period of eight days, from 15 to 24 July 2002, excluding the weekend. The students and inmates met for two hours every day to work on the performance. The two groups worked in the same church hall, working in separate corners. The knowledge of each other's rehearsal process led to both groups developing similar conventions. Sometimes the groups competed with each other to develop vocal power and increased theatrical energy. Later, during the performances, each group supported the other by helping to manage the audience. At the end of the first week, the pieces were given a test performance with an audience drawn from other inmates who were more experienced in drama work and who were working with Hurst on the production of a play, Isikhathi Sewashi [2]. Thereafter, on Monday 22 and Tuesday 23 July, the pieces were finalised in readiness for the performance. Buthelezi's project performed on Monday 29 July in the Medium B Prison's Juvenile Section. The Juvenile Section in the Medium B Prison houses maximum-security prisoners, under the age of eighteen and serving long-term sentences.

Boal's participative models of image and forum theatre were appropriated and used in conjunction with Zulu songs, dances, and war and work chants. It was necessary to explore Zulu performance conventions in order to create a performance that engaged the audience actively in the interactive processes required to discuss and pose solutions to the HIV/AIDS topic. Boal describes not spectators, but "spect-actors" as participants who initially come to the performance as spectators, but who are drawn out of their passive state by the actor-facilitator so that in the end they play an active part in the performance. He describes image theatre as theatre in which the spect-actor intervenes, offering solutions by 'sculpting' images using the actors or audience to demonstrate the problem, the solution and the transition from the problem to the solution. In forum theatre, the spect-actor intervenes directly by replacing the actor-facilitator in the scene and acting out solutions (2000: 135, 139).

Buthelezi and the inmates created the performance in seven sessions using a workshop process. The use of Boal's conventions and the practice of facilitating audience discussions were new to Buthelezi and the inmates. The performance finally consisted of four sections. The first section was an audience warm-up. The second section was a short play, the third section the discussion, and the fourth section the closure. Each day the group had warmed up by singing izingoma neziqubulo, Zulu songs and chants. Several songs were tried out over the first three days before the group decided on the final audience warm-up song and the songs that would be used to link the various sections of the performance.

After the warm-up, the group went to work on the second section, creating a short play, lasting eight minutes, depicting expressions of prejudice, by inmates and the prison staff, towards an ill inmate. The purpose of this scene was to pose, to the audience, some problems around living with HIV/AIDS in the prison. The scene was created over the first four days using image theatre to storyboard the play. Key moments of prejudice were identified and expressed as physical images and then, using improvisation, the image was expanded into an acted scene. This was a physical and theatrical process that turned recognizable moments of prejudice, about which the group had reached consensus, into theatrical core-images and then into more detailed scenes. This process of using core-images is similar to the use of oral core-images discussed by Scheub (1975) in his analysis of Nguni folk tales. Scheub describes the core-image as the basic element to which the storyteller adds detail, either to elaborate or to link the image to other core-images. A core-image is a " remembered image which is not in itself complete, a distillate of the full performance, expanded and fleshed out during the process of externalisation"(1975:47).

The performance took place in a wide hallway in front of the cells in the Medium B Juvenile Section with the inmates from the section forming the audience. Almost the entire population of the section attended because the performance offered relief from the monotony of prison life. Also present in the audience were some university staff members. The audience totalled approximately 250 people. At the beginning of the event, members of the audience, who were standing loosely throughout the hallway, were collected by the six actor-facilitators, with help from prison staff, in one corner at the end of the hallway. Once the audience was standing in a circle, the lead actor-facilitator introduced the performance. He welcomed the audience and Hurst explained the background to the project and thanked the Prison and the University of Natal for making the project possible.

This introduction was followed by the audience warm-up, led by the actor-facilitators using a Zulu song and dance, with audience members coming into the circle to dance in a manner typical of Zulu social and ceremonial gatherings. While the song and dance were taking place, the actor-facilitators arranged the audience in a more compact circle in readiness for the short play that was to follow. The warm-up energized the audience and prepared them to engage with the questions that were to be posed during the performance and the active role required by the performance process. Thus they became what, as we mentioned above, Boal calls spect-actors rather than spectators (2000: xxi). Once the audience was warmed up, they were taught how to use image theatre. They were shown an image demonstrating a problem and taught how to change it to an idealized image. Transitional images described by Boal were eliminated in this adaptation of the process. It was explained to them that they were going to create their own images at a later stage during the performance.

The short play was then performed in the centre of the circle. The play showed an ill inmate going to a member of staff in his section of the prison and asking to go to the prison hospital. The member of staff rudely sends the inmate away, saying he should have booked to go to the hospital. A second inmate comes to ask to go to the hospital. This second inmate is well known to the member of staff, who normally performs favours for him. The second inmate is sent to fetch other inmates who want to go to the hospital. The first, second and a third inmate return and are lined up and taken to the hospital by the member of staff. At the hospital the member of staff hands the inmates over to a nurse who treats the inmates disparagingly, telling them that they did not come to prison to get sick. While he is asking them what their ailments are, another inmate runs on carrying his friend who is very ill and cannot walk to the hospital by himself. The nurse shouts at them and eventually sends them away to go and get a member of staff who must escort them to the hospital. As they leave, they stop to talk to the three inmates waiting for attention. The inmate, who is carrying the ill person, uses visual codes to tell the other inmates in the queue that his friend is suffering from AIDS and exposes his friend to expressions of prejudice from the other inmates. He then proceeds to the cell with his sick friend and puts him to bed. At the hospital, the nurse sends the rest of the inmates back to their section because the doctor cannot come to the prison hospital as his wife is sick. The three inmates go back to their cell. They pass the staff member who tells them that it is not his problem that they were not attended to. The three inmates then visit a friend in the cell with the sick inmate. As they enter, the sick inmate is coughing and the friend they are visiting complains that the ill man is going to infect him with AIDS by coughing in his direction. The inmates who did not get attention at the hospital complain that it is because of these people suffering from AIDS that they do not get treatment at the hospital. The scene ends with one of the inmates suggesting that they should talk to the members of staff and request that the ill man be sent to Makhulukuthu, a separate section of the hospital where terminally ill patients are said to be left to die.

The lead actor-facilitator then explained to the audience that the scene was going to be shown again with breaks at certain places to highlight the issues that the actor-facilitators wished to discuss with the audience, later, in small groups. The scene was then shown again. The moments where the scene was stopped and an actor-facilitator came forward to pose questions to the audience were:

when the nurse sends the sick man and his friend away;

when the friend signals to the other inmates that the sick man is suffering from AIDS;

when the inmate in the cell tells the friend to stop the sick man coughing in his direction; and

when the inmates who return from the hospital suggest that the sick man be sent to Makhulukuthu.

Using singing and dancing, the audience was then split into five smaller discussion groups, four led by an actor-facilitator each and one led by two actor-facilitators. Each group identified and discussed expressions of prejudice towards people with HIV/AIDS and offered solutions, which they then created as images. The images were shown and explained to the whole audience in a final feedback session. The event was concluded with a toyi-toyi song that spoke of hope and the need to work together to find solutions, leaving the audience energetic and happy. It had lasted a total of one hour, fifty minutes.

Boal's method uses a character he calls a joker (2000:173). The role of the joker is to lead the spectators through the performance process that transforms them into spect-actors and to engage actively with the issues under discussion. One individual plays the joker role in Boal's description, and audience members come forward individually as spect-actors to play the protagonist and test solutions to the problem. In this project, the role of the joker was adapted when the inmates making the play found a more culturally consistent Zulu performance convention to achieve the kind of process Boal describes. This entailed re-creating the roles and function of the joker and spect-actors in a more collective manner. The joker was re-imagined in terms of Zulu military culture with the entire team of actor-facilitators and audience or spect-actors in role for the duration of the performance. This involved splitting the joker role and function among a number of actor-facilitators. The six actor-facilitators worked throughout the performance, leading songs, dances and clapping, managing the crowd, and facilitating debate in the smaller discussion groups. This performance in the totally male environment of the prison drew on residual aspects of Zulu military culture, with older men, as actor-facilitators, leading the younger men, from the youth section, through the performance process. This accords with Eileen Jensen Krige's observation that,

Zulu history and the character of the Zulu people have been to a great extent moulded and determined by their military system which, during the nineteenth century, influenced every phase of Zulu life. Indeed the whole nation was organised into what might be called a great military camp. (1974:261)

Again, as John Laband and Paul Thompson observe, "boys between the ages of fourteen and eighteen would gather at amakhanda, military kraals, where they served for two to three years as cadets, herding cattle, working the fields and practising military skills" (1983:3). The older boys passed on the skills of combat and military discipline that they had learnt from their seniors to the younger boys in the veld while they were herding cattle (Ngubane, 2002). When enough boys had been gathered at various amakhanda throughout the country, they would be formed into amabutho, regiments, by the king. An ibutho, a regiment, would be comprised of several amaviyo, platoons. An iviyo, a platoon, was usually a group of age mates that hailed from the same isigodi, region, and who had grown up together and joined the same ikhanda before being recruited into an ibutho. An ibutho numbered between eight hundred and one thousand men, while an iviyo numbered between forty and fifty (Krige, 1986:262). Each ibutho was commanded by an induna, a commander, who had enough powers to order small military operations. The new ibutho would then build a new ikhanda where they would be quartered for the duration of their military service, which lasted until the king decided to allow them to go out and take wives and build their own homes (Laband and Thompson, 1983:3). This internment at amakhanda meant that Zulu men spent most of their lives in service of the state living in these military compounds, acting as the army and the police as well as working the land to produce food to feed the ikhanda. In the amakhanda in times of peace, the amabutho would engage in dances that served a purpose similar to military drills. The movements in these dances were similar to those of soldiers in battle, and those members of the amabutho who excelled in the dances went on to become amagosa, dance marshals, at gatherings convened by the king (Msimang, 1991:341). Each ibutho travelled together from their ikhanda to the isigodlo, the king's palace, and operated as a regiment at these gatherings. This structure began to disintegrate in the late-nineteenth century. However, traces of this structure remain present in society to this day and are a strong element of Zulu masculine identity in the modern era.

It is possible to describe the inmates at the Medium B Juvenile Section as an ikhanda with its almost fixed population of young male inmates. The ibutho had to be constructed during the performance by the actor-facilitators in order to lead this large group of young men through the performance and discussions. The formation of the ibutho was achieved by using Zulu masculine and military cultural tropes, even though not all of the audience or actor-facilitators were fully conscious of how these performance conventions functioned to draw them into the roles of amagosa and ibutho. Through the use of amahubo neziqubulo during the warm up, the actor-facilitators negotiated with the juvenile inmates to agree to take on the role of the ibutho, for the duration of the performance, in response to the their performance in the roles of the induna and amagosa.

This kind of role-playing is explained by Christopher Kamlongera (1988:22-23) as an important element of a traditional African outlook, which he describes as not drawing a distinction between a work of art and the real world, as in the West. He explains that the spatial vision of theatre is not contracted into purely physical acting areas separate from the real world. Rather, there is an area of co-existence between the real world and theatre, where the onlooker at one point looks at the two as separate entities, but at another moment sees them merge and feed on each other - theatre borrowing signs from the real world whilst at the same time being of service to it through its overt functional qualities. This is where the functional nature of theatre takes its root.

The audience identified the actor-facilitators as they were being collected at one end of the hallway because the actor-facilitators were from outside the Juvenile Section; they were from the adult sections of the Medium B Prison. It was mostly curiosity that led the audience to move to the end of the hall. When the lead actor-facilitator welcomed the audience and introduced the event, he started to establish his role as the induna of the ibutho that was about to be formed. Once the warm-up began, the rest of the actor-facilitators also established their roles as amagosa, marshalling the audience and leading their transformation, through singing and clapping, into spect-actors. The amagosa operated under the induna who was responsible for maintaining cohesion of the group as it moved through the performance process and also ensuring that the event remained within the time constraints of the prison routine of meal times and lock up.

What occurred from the time the audience came to stand in a circle at the beginning of the warm-up was the "manufacture of consent", to appropriate Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's term. Herman and Chomsky argue that the mass media manufactures consent in the way it draws the reader or the viewer to agree with a certain worldview through highly selective editing (1988:29). Similarly, when the audience joined in the singing, clapping and dancing that was led by the induna with support from the amagosa, the audience consented to take on the role of the ibutho. The warm-up worked dialectically as a means to manufacture consent and as the audience's expression of consent to participate in the performance. In expressing consent, the audience was transformed from a passive audience of spectators to active spect-actors. Also, by becoming part of the ibutho, the spect-actors consented to maintain integrity by excluding all issues not germane to the event. They consented, therefore, to being under the authority of the induna and the amagosa as an ibutho.

It is important to note here that consent was manufactured by appealing to the spect-actors' goodwill as well as coercively. The induna appealed to the audience for co-operation in the introduction to the event. However, once the warm-up was under way and the roles of the induna and amagosa were established, the participation of the audience as members of the ibutho was enforced through coercion as members of the audience were randomly pulled into the circle to dance regardless of whether they wanted to dance or not. This coercion was recognised and accepted as part of the amabutho culture where the induna uses aggression to achieve his intentions. Masculine energy was celebrated by the amabutho. Not being macho was seen as weak, and such men were derisively called amanina, mothers' children.

The induna and the amagosa were all in a circle with the spect-actors being the ibutho. When a spect-actor went into the circle, he would dance on his own and then draw the next person from the crowd into the circle to come and perform after him; or, he would challenge another person to dance with him. This behaviour draws on Zulu expressions of machismo. C.T. Msimang informs us that the better a man could dance the more recognition he got (1991:341). Dancing individually or challenging somebody else to dance with you in front of an audience was, and still is, a chance to demonstrate your skill and machismo. Msimang's comment is congruous with Krige's statement above regarding how men became amagosa.

What was observable during the performance was that the more rural members of the ibutho were better traditional dancers whereas the urban members were inclined towards toyi-toyi. There were no value judgments placed by the audience on what form of dance a person could do in the circle. Non-Zulus were also accommodated. People who had no background in either ingoma or toyi-toyi could still dance in the circle, get laughed at but still maintain some dignity because to dance in the circle was a statement of support for and agreement to join the ibutho. What was being negotiated was that each individual member brings personal experience to the ibutho and each plays a role in the ibutho. This established that the ibutho had to collaborate with the induna and amagosa for the performance to be successful. These kinds of dynamics have been argued to be the essence of African communal life (Biko, 2000:41). Once the warm-up was under way, coercion gave way to the excitement generated by the communal feeling and activity. The energy generated by the warm-up carried the performance to the end enabling the audience to be managed efficiently to split into discussion groups or reformed as the ibutho. The collaborative atmosphere also informed the group discussions and created efficient group dynamics to address the task of making images in the groups.

Two aspects of the use of space stood out during the performance. The first aspect was the creation of a public space where the actor-facilitators and the audience performed in the roles as an ibutho. The performance space came to express the traditional view described by Kamlongera above, where it becomes possible for the real world and theatre to co-exist. The warm-up broke the divide between the active and passive space of conventional western theatre, with the stage as the active space where performance takes place and the auditorium, the space from where the audience watches passively. The behaviour of the ibutho in the public space was in line with Krige's assertion that the dances that took place in the amakhanda served the purpose of drills. However, the power structures of Zulu patriarchy and the authority of the induna and amagosa limit the extent from which this space can be used to speak out and to offer criticism.

The second aspect about using space was the flexibility with which the amagosa could use these Zulu 'drills' to break the ibutho into amaviyo and create smaller private groups for discussion. Within these groups more people felt free to express their opinions. A loud energetic isiqubulo made the members of the ibutho very active and was chanted as the amagosa broke the ibutho into five amaviyo. Each iviyo continued singing, clapping and dancing for a while creating its identity and establishing its space separately almost in opposition to the other iviyo. This established the private space for free discussion about how inmates and prison staff express prejudice towards people with HIV/AIDS. The task required that solutions had to be found for the behaviour that was being criticised. Both the criticism and the solutions were then expressed using theatrical images. Once the discussion and the making of images that demonstrated problems and solutions were over, the iviyo again manoeuvred back into the public space of the ibutho. Back in the public space, the images were performed for the entire ibutho. The images carried their messages clearly to the inmates and staff present in the public space, but the details of the discussion that had been essential to creating the image were not made public.

Boal's theatre is about promoting public discussion around pressing social issues. Public discussion is conducted, in public, in front of the entire audience. In the context of the prison, hierarchies of power were likely to reduce public critical debate because only certain people would be able to speak out in public. When the ibutho was broken up into the amaviyo to create private space for discussion, the power relations between prison staff and inmates, and around prison gang culture, were more successfully managed. The igosa in each group marshalled the discussion by ensuring that every member of the iviyo engaged with the issues under discussion. A high quality of debate was achieved as a result of the amagosa posing questions constantly through the discussion. The premise for engaging each person in the discussion was in response to Freire's dictum that "I cannot think for others or without others, nor can others think for me" (1996:89). The trope of the discussion circle was later recognised by one of the amagosa in an interview conducted by Buthelezi with the inmates:

We Zulus, even in our (rural) homes, built circular houses because people sit in a circle when they have something to discuss. The square houses are there, but we don't sit in them. We go to the round. If you are not in the round house, you go to the cattle-pen.

In his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire states that the active participant, the oppressed person, achieves praxis by acting to change his/her condition and reflecting on that action (1996:33-35). In order for the oppressed to act, they need to achieve some sort of critical distance, raised consciousness, in order to read the world and liberate themselves from being immersed in the reality of the oppressor. Dialogical action is central to this process.

In discussing how to live positively with HIV/AIDS in a maximum-security prison, the juvenile inmates were able to analyse their situation and criticise their own behaviour, as well as the attitudes and behaviour of the prison staff, towards people with terminal illness. This corresponds with Freire's assertion that "even if the people's thinking is superstitious or naïve, it is only as they rethink their assumptions in action that they can change" (1996:89). Positive solutions were offered to counter the prejudice expressed towards people with HIV/AIDS. The images created by the amaviyo and shown to the rest of the ibutho during the feedback session were predominantly about treating sick people with more compassion. The images often involved gestures that were kinder, gentler and more yielding. For example, sick and injured bodies would be held, moved or lifted with tender care. This was not only a display of compassion in a harsh masculine and unsafe environment that discourages the inmates from showing vulnerable feelings, it was a physical renegotiation of prejudice by the inmates as they explored and demonstrated the idea that you cannot become infected by the HIV/AIDS virus through normal physical contact. In the safer and altered reality of performance, as an ibutho the inmates were able to express an idealised code for the treatment of the terminally ill. Just as the public display of dancing manufactured consent to belong to the ibutho, so these images manufactured consensus around about how to treat ill people. These gentler behaviours were not stigmatised as un-masculine because they had emerged from within the masculine performance aesthetic of the ibutho.

The event closed with a popular toyi-toyi song the lyrics of which had been altered to fit the subject of the event. Again cultural knowledge that was present amongst the inmates had been used. Even though the protest tradition of toyi-toyi songs and dances is not distinctly Zulu, in the context of the performance the toyi-toyi tropes could be read as an extension of the Zulu masculine and military tropes. The use of toyi-toyi extended the significance of the message to include notions of fighting AIDS and protesting against prejudiced behaviour. This again used cultural forms of building consensus around the messages in the images.

The same inmate quoted above suggested that:

We've been running away from our culture....The izinsizwa (the young men) sit in a circle, you are all looking out for one another. If I am sitting here I can see what is coming behind you. Even when going to war you sit in a circle with everyone looking out for one another. The way we are doing is going back to where we come from, something we had lost.

However succinctly this inmate captured his understanding of the use of Zulu military tropes, the performance form employed was not always recognised by the inmates as particularly Zulu. Instead, they recognised it as something new and different to anything that they had experienced before. A possible explanation for this new element was the way the performance allowed the inmates to speak out, which they experienced as a re-negotiation of power relations within notions of Zulu patriarchal structures, prison authority and prison gang culture. Whether the negotiations that occurred in the safety of the performance manifested in changed action beyond the event is not possible to capture at this time. The social impact these plays make is the subject of further research.

The University students were also surprised by what appeared to be an effective performance process for more democratic speaking in public. They experienced this, however, as a journey back towards traditional cultural practice, which led them personally to re-evaluate the role of African knowledge systems. Buthelezi wrote in the journal he kept as part of the project:

I have also journeyed back to my beginnings in the sense that through the years I have been made to shove aside knowledge from my own cultural background because of an education system that is bent towards the west. Cultural knowledge that is not western has been undervalued throughout my formal education years. So I have had to switch codes constantly in order to move between worlds. For once I am able to bring my cultural knowledge to bear completely on a project that is still sanctioned by the academy.

Zulu, ultimately African, cultural knowledge has tended to be undervalued because of the legacy of apartheid and urban myths that represent African knowledge as rural and backward. Still, African people are under-represented amongst academic staff in South Africa. Moreover, many of the African academics have had to take on Western cultural values in order to be successful and achieve status within the academy. Prison Theatre: Performance Interventions with Offenders provided an opportunity for some students to explore with the inmates less formal types of knowledge and to find a role within the academy for this kind of learning to be valued.

The implications for change being linked to cultural activities are subtle and hard to access. Have the Medium B plays, for example, really changed the behaviour of the inmates? Have they changed the institutions in any way? The students and inmates did not only thought deeply about issues around HIV/AIDS; they also reflected seriously on the value and social potential of African cultural practices. The Prison AIDS committee and Prison management thought the play was useful and it was performed throughout the prison during 2003. Boal says:

Maybe the theatre in itself is not revolutionary, but these theatrical forms are without a doubt a rehearsal for revolution. The truth of the matter is that the spect-actor practises a real act even though he does it in a fictional manner. (2000:141)

Is only revolutionary action the best measure for the success of participative theatre practices? Are we really asking theatre to do what it can do most successfully? In a prison, the potential for action is limited. Yet in these plays, in the Medium B Prison, more complex relationships and ideas are being negotiated than just revolutionary action. Do these performances offer an opportunity for us to understand more about participatory theatre, to ask more complicated questions about it and to demand more from the form itself?

South African prisons are very overcrowded. In 2003, when this play was revived and played in each section of the prison, the Medium B Prison held approximately four thousand inmates. The following comment by an inmate, who attended a performance, demonstrates how important it was, in the prison context, to physical explore touching in conjunction with the presentation of correct information about HIV infection.

I saw another picture where a sick patient was carried by another inmate like him. And he was taken to hospital. And I personally didn't like to come near a person who is HIV positive before, even to talk to him because of the myths I had that the virus will simple jump from him and affect me. But when I learned how the HIV is transmitted, I then realise that it is something that doesn't acquire in that manner of touch, sharing of toothpaste or spoon, the dangerous thing is blood...I learned that it is unpleasant to distance oneself from an HIV positive person but he is someone who needs comfort, support and hope.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi is currently studying at Columbia University in the United States. At the time of writing the article he was a Masters Fellow in the Programme of English Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban. He has been involved in theatre as a contemporary dancer, actor, teacher and playwright. His current research focuses on nineteenth century Zulu izibongo with a particular interest in King Shaka and empire building.

Christopher Hurst lectures in the Drama and Performance Studies Programme, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban. He has worked as an actor in Britain including working with the royal Shakespeare Company. He returned to Zimbabwe to work with Cont Mhlange at Amakhosi, a leading Zimbabwean township theatre group. He moved to Durban in 1997 where he has worked on a project Bhambayi Celebrates Peace and Development using performance and video to mark and negotiate new social relationships in the once politically strife torn community. He is currently involved in a Prison Theatre Projects at Durban's Westville Prison.


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1. This material is based upon work supported by the National Research Foundation under Project No:NRF2060. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Research Foundation. The Community Higher Education Services Partnerships (CHESP) office at the University of Natal also supported the work that generated this material. This article first appeared in Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 15, 11 (April 2003), 123-34. Reproduced here with permission.

2. Isikhathi Sewashi is a colloquial phrase meaning the time of the watch, it is time!

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