The opening of Soweto's first theatre is the latest symbol of transformation in the area, along with its annual wine festival and May fashion week.
It was a speech of defiance and undying hope. Zindzi Mandela, then aged 25, stood before thousands of people in Jabulani Stadium, Soweto, and read out the words of her father who was still languishing in prison. “Your freedom and mine cannot be separated,” she said on behalf of Nelson Mandela. “I will return.“x
Twenty-seven years later, close to the site where Zindzi held her audience rapt, a different spectacle is about to play out for a new generation. Soweto’s first theatre opens its doors on May 11.
The R150-million structure of concrete, ceramic tiles and glass has a multicoloured, curving design reminiscent of Frank Gehry’s architecture. It contains three auditoriums with a total of about 630 seats.
The theatre is the latest symbol of a transformation that would have been unthinkable in the 1970s, when clashes between protesters and apartheid police turned South Africa’s biggest town into a virtual warzone. It was also synonymous with grinding poverty and inhumane living conditions.
Such problems still run deep in Soweto. But they increasingly co-exist with hints of a nascent middle class: detached houses with gardens and pools, one of Southern Africa’s biggest shopping malls, a four-star hotel and conference centre, a multiplex cinema, an annual wine festival and, in May, the inaugural Soweto fashion week.
It is hoped that the Soweto theatre will accelerate that transformation. Steven Sack, director of arts, culture and heritage for the city of Johannesburg, who is currently overseeing the project, said: “It’s probably the first theatre in a township in South Africa.”
“It partly has to do with the important emphasis on developing Soweto as a neighbourhood with the same standards as the rest of Johannesburg. A third of people in Johannesburg live there. The idea is that the theatre is a catalyst for new civic development in the area. It’s wonderful that this iconic building is there.”
What life’s about
Sack has witnessed how the town has changed in the space of a generation. He said: “When I was working in Soweto in the early 80s, all that was advertised on billboards was liquor and insecticide sprays; that’s what people’s lives were about. Now there’s a lot of TV, banking, service industry adverts.
“That’s not to say there are not still a lot of people unemployed, but it’s a different place from 30 years ago. The Soweto theatre is about the next 30 years.”
Johannesburg’s current playhouses include the Market Theatre, which became famous for its politically charged work during apartheid, situated in a former fruit and vegetable market. The Jo’burg Theatre, Old Mutual Theatre on the Square, Teatro at Montecasino and Windybrow Theatre present work ranging from young black writing to musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera.
Sack believes the city-subsidised Soweto theatre, which has not yet appointed an artistic director, can carve its own niche. “That will be the big challenge in the way the programme is put together. Over time there’s no doubt it will attract a growing audience.
“There’s an enormous amount of interest. People are approaching us with all sorts of projects. The Soweto brand is appealing to a lot of people.”
Few middle-class people in Johannesburg use public transport or walk, especially at night, partly because of fears about crime. But Sack believes the theatre’s location can be an asset.
“With the tourism industry, there are significant numbers coming to Vilakazi Street, interested in the liberation story,” he continued. “If we offered traditional dance during the day, would we be able to attract them? ... In the evenings, our focus is on attracting a local audience. There are limits around nighttime movement and public transport, but my sense of Johannesburg is that it’s content-driven. If the content and the vibe are right, people will be more adventurous about where they go.”
Training and collaborations
Sack said the theatre is aiming for a strong link to the community, including a training component, and has plans for international collaborations.
The first play to be staged is The Suitcase, previously a hit at the Market Theatre, directed by rising star James Ngcobo and with music by celebrated trumpeter and composer Hugh Masekela.
Theatregoers in the building’s light and airy foyer will be left in no doubt of their location or its history. The high windows look out upon Johannesburg’s famous giant yellow mine dumps, rows of matchbox houses, a yellow and grey metro train taking commuters to the city, the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus and colourful cooling towers to tempt bungee jumpers.
Blue, red and yellow tiles decorate the inside of the building, evoking a subway station. The compact 420-seat main theatre is adorned with orange and yellow pyramids on the wall to aid its acoustics.
There are two black boxes, with capacity for about 120 and 90 seats, which call to mind London’s Donmar Warehouse or Young Vic. Outside is a fourth, open-air performance space.
There has been a positive reaction from Sowetans so far. Bongani Gumede (28), an unemployed craftsman, said: “It’s a good idea because there’s a lot of talent not seen out there. It will be a good place to showcase that talent. I would go and see them. Soweto is getting better. There is a lot of development. It’s great to have things like a shopping mall in Soweto so you don’t have to go into town and get exploited.”
Under the name Almy, a user of the Sowetan newspaper’s website posted: “Yippppeeee — @ last — I’m so excited about our Theatre, it looks stunning. I’m filled with pride every time I drive past Jabulani. Well done guys!”
Another, called Vhamsanda, commented: “It’s time that Soweto theatre takes its place in the world. Big Ups!”—