Playing to the people

Community theatre is alive and well, and generating debate. Phillip Kakaza looks at two recent examples

`South African theatre is floating on the waves of political change,” observes Johnny Loate, whose play, Cabbages and Bullets, 1998 winner of the Windybrow Arts Festival FNB Vita Award, is now at the Windybrow.

“Protest theatre was based on the liberation struggle,” he says. “Today theatre must move towards educating society about human rights and other social issues.”

Loate shares these sentiments with budding playwright Kennedy Mabasa, whose play, The Other Side of the Coin, looks at the arms industry in the post-apartheid era.

These plays aim to help educate communities about human rights. Like street children, they grovel in the dustbins of apartheid to expose startling social issues. Their plays are constructed out of a passionate commitment to telling vital stories.

The struggle against apartheid - and the theatre it produced - inspires these playwrights and influences the form of their work. The profound synthesis of a multi- cultural society that constitutes our urban experience provides them with up-to-date material for their plays.

In Cabbages and Bullets, two unsung ex- Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) guerrillas are disillusioned - they feel they’ve been rejected by society. Unemployed and traumatised, Peter Magwa (Theo Thabapelo) and his comrade Rodgers Bantobetsi (Jacob Mocuminyane) take to drugs, alcohol and crime to escape their hardships.

Loate juxtaposes the comrades’ environment with the world of a strong woman, Gloria, Peter’s mother, who discovers that her daughter Fiona (Palesa Madisakwane) has conceived a child after being raped by her stepfather.

“The dillemma of the mother shows how apartheid has crippled us, causing us to become a nation with no morals, where the rate of crime increases every day,” says Loate.

Though the play could be mistaken for Eighties protest theatre, it goes beyond that genre - indeed, it renews it for a new era. Yet it forces no slogans down people’s throats. Instead, it delves into the lives and experiences of individuals in the new South Africa. Loate says he chooses to deal with personal lives rather than shouting slogans, because slogans provide no solutions.

Passionate about the plight of ex- guerrillas, he says politicians speak of nation-building but nothing has been done for them. After risking their lives shooting bullets, he says, they’ve been thrown into a rubbish bin as if they were worthless cabbages.

“The very same people who were involved in the armed struggle never got rehabilitated to become part of this society, and never gained economic empowerment or shelter. Many feel neglected and it seems political leaders have infringed on their human rights only to gain political power.”

Mabasa’s play, The Other Side of the Coin, stimulates debate about the arms industry and its negative implications for peace and human rights. “The play raises many questions,” he says. “What do we do to ourselves and other countries if we use the sale of lethal and destructive weapons to make money? Does it create jobs, and who benefits?”

These questions generate conflict in the play between a husband (Bheki Vilakazi) who is involved in the arms industry and his wife (Nosipho Malotana) who feels that the arms industry is about the destruction of lives.

She maintains that the money spent there should instead be spent on education and housing. Their conflicting views lead to a divorce, and it is only then that the husband quits his job. This hilarious piece is brilliantly acted out in song and dance.

“Though part of our liberation had to do with the armed struggle, I feel that our country does not need arms any more,” says Mabasa. “We are not at war and should be investing money in nation-building. People need houses, clinics, clean water, school, sanitation and electricity.”

The Other Side of the Coin has been touring township schools and tertiary institutions. Both plays are receiving full-house

audiences and raising debate.

“After every performance people come to me and plead that I take the play to government structures. They say, `It’s them who need to see it,’” explains Loate. And it has been the same with Mabasa’s play: “After every show we invite the audience to a 30-minute question-and-answer session. Many are not even familiar with the arms industry and we have to do a lot of explanation, mostly of technical terms we use in the play.”

Loate and Mabasa agree that this kind of flourishing theatre - which they call “theatre in education” or just community theatre - indicates that people want their world interpreted.

“There is a need for the informed generation to relate their past and carefully write about the present experiences,” says Loate.

Mabasa adds: “I believe that one of the most effective ways to communicate ideas, information and feelings is through the living theatrical encounter.”

Cabbages and Bullets is showing at the Windybrow Theatre, Johannesburg. The Other Side of the Coin is on tour; shows can be booked by calling the Ceasefire Campaign offices on (011) 403 5315

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