Director Siphiwe Khumalo prefers to use the term “theatre classics” rather than “protest theatre” when defining the plays that emerged in the difficult apartheid years. It’s a definition he brings to his latest production, Survival, showing at Arts Alive in Johannesburg.
For those who don’t know, his production is an ambitious restaging of the work of the now-legendary Workshop ’71 Theatre Company that, ironically, employed Khumalo as its stage manager in his youth.
Originally established as a theatre school by Robert “Mshengu” McClaren, Workshop ’71 began life after-hours in a Wits University lecture hall. Four years later, in 1975, the company was formally constituted. Its first production was the late James Mthoba’s one-hander, uHlangu, which ended its run at London’s Royal Court Theatre.
After uHlangu’s success, Cape Town’s Space Theatre commissioned Survival, which toured townships in 1976 before transferring to London’s Window Theatre. That same year, while playing in Soweto’s YWCA in Dube, a surprise visit from the military ended the run. Tactfully, Khumalo remembers how “the actors were invited to John Vorster Square”.
But the detention was to be a temporary setback after which Survival ran to capacity houses at Wits University’s Box Theatre before a tour of the United States. Finally, after a revival in 1978 directed by Peter Sephuma, the somewhat beleaguered play was officially banned.
As Survival’s original stage manager, Khumalo is the right man to rekindle its spark. He has assembled a heavyweight cast of big names including Sello Maake ka Ncube, Vusi Kunene, Desmond Dube and Thulani Nyembe.
Given their participation, one may take it for granted that the production is well backed. Unfortunately, though, this is not the case.
“Survival is being done for love and to keep theatre going,” Khumalo says. “The actors are not being paid for rehearsals. And we’re working for door takings.”
The cast, who started working on the assumption that Arts Alive would provide for their needs, have nevertheless remained committed to their task. It’s proof of their high regard for the director, and for the play itself.
“I don’t want to keep talking about the lack of funds,” Khumalo concludes. “If there’s something I want to do, and I can find a cast, I just get up and do it.
“Survival is a challenging play for actors. It was one of the plays that inspired Sello to go into theatre. And for Desmond Dube it is a genre he’s never done before.”
Indeed, Survival is a dream for actors. They double up on characters and tell the story without frills or clutter. Khumalo calls it “a four blankets and a bucket play”. All the props are mimed.
He categorises it further as “poor man’s theatre – that’s where we come from and there need be no apologies for that”.
Like other plays of its era, Survival is set in a prison where four inmates tell stories of life under apartheid. Khumalo calls it “vibrant” work, with great music, that goes a long way toward exposing how life was then.
In the future Khumalo plans to revive more classics. Not the works of Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen or Brecht, but those of Kani, Mthoba, Ntshona, Ngema, Simon and Fugard. But he needs a willing public if his plans are to materialise at all.
Unfortunately, our audiences have rejected home-grown classics, expounding the somewhat outdated view that there is enough politics on the news. What they overlook is the fact that Shakespeare himself wrote about politics and history. At the same time, while practitioners grapple with the question of what stories to tell, they tend to ignore the simple answer: that we must tell the stories we’ve always told.
Khumalo, however, has hit on the solution by concluding that our so-called “protest theatre” is in reality our classical theatre. Like other classical works, ours may have had an immediate political and social relevance when they were first performed but this is something that changes over time.
This is true of Survival. A play that had an immediate political function back in 1976, it still harbours the universal themes of suffering, cruelty and the will to survive in the face of adversity.
Catch Survival in Alexandra from September 17 to 19 and at the Civic Theatre from September 21 to 25