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The Soweto Theatre: Making theatre matter again

To watch the video on renovations to the Soweto Theatre click here.

Theatre mattered in Soweto in those days. With the opening this week of the first state-of-the-art playhouse in South Africa’s most famous township, Ledwaba and others think it can matter again.

Apartheid planners saw Soweto as little more than a dormitory for Johannesburg’s black domestic workers and gardeners, mine and factory workers. But it has long been a cosmopolitan centre of political and artistic life for black South Africans.

The R150-million Soweto Theatre complex, which boasts a 436-seat main stage and two smaller performance spaces, is part of an ambitious redevelopment plan by the City of Johannesburg.

Steven Sack, acting chief executive officer of the new theatre, said black South Africans were once “living at the margins of our society”. The theatre is part of efforts to change that.

Sack said the next step in redevelopment plans was the renovation of the nearby Jabulani Amphitheatre which has, since the 1950s, hosted concerts as well as political events.

In 1985, Nelson Mandela’s daughter Zindzi, stood in Jabulani to read his refusal of an offer from the white government to free him from prison on the condition he renounce the violent struggle.

Since the fall of apartheid and Mandela becoming South Africa’s first black president, Soweto has seen the building of new parks, homes, museums and malls, the paving of more roads and the renovation of schools and stadiums.

New beginnings
The Suitcase, the production that will open the Soweto Theatre on Friday, brings together some of South Africa’s best-known talent. The play is based on a story by the late Es’kia Mphahlele about poverty, desperation and hope, and features music by Hugh Masekela, choreography by Gregory Maqoma, and is directed by James Ngcobo. This line-up of internationally famous South African artists underlines the ambitions of the Soweto Theatre.

The new theatre resembles a giant child’s toy with walls clad in bright blue, yellow and red tiles and a tent-like entrance covered in an awning of white canvas. Sophisticated and modern, it contrasts sharply with the community halls where plays in Soweto were once performed.

Ledwaba had advice for the theatre’s management: “Please, no weddings and parties!” He wants a stage devoted to theatre where audiences can see sophisticated and challenging work.

“I come from a history of using theatre to fight,” Ledwaba said.

Ledwaba remembers casts and crews bringing their own lights, sets and costumes to halls for performances, then clearing everything out so that the hall could be used for the next activity – a wedding, a political meeting, a funeral. Audiences sat on rows of plastic chairs that could be stacked out of the way to make way for dances.

Theatre companies back then had to be mobile, so souvenirs ended up scattered or lost, Ledwaba said.

One of his own few mementoes, hanging on a wall in the bedroom he uses as a study in his four-room Soweto home, is a poster showing him in character in Black Dog Inj’ Emnyamaa play that toured the world.

Ledwaba played a character closely based on his own experiences during the explosion of youthful militancy in Soweto in the 1970s. Ledwaba and other cast members created Black Dog with famed protest theatre director Barney Simon in 1984, the year Ledwaba toyed with becoming a guerrilla fighter but went back to Soweto to create and perform.

Playwright and director Selaelo Maredi – who, like Ledwaba, began performing in Soweto at the start of a theatre career that took him around the world – said Soweto theatre drew not just large audiences, but police informers, who sent to find out what black South Africans were thinking and saying.

Maredi toured US colleges with Survival, a play set in a prison that he and three other actors developed in Soweto in the 1970s to explore themes of oppression and resistance.

Re-educating Soweto audiences
Maredi laments that Sowetans lost the habit of going to the theatre, reluctant to venture into the streets of an increasingly turbulent and crime-ridden area in the 1970s and 1980s and now distracted by other diversions, including satellite TV and shopping mall cinemas.

Maredi hopes to see an off-Broadway to Broadway system created in Soweto with the opening of the new theatre. Artists at the gleaming new theatre, he said, can work with small acting troupes across the township to develop shows that will help Sowetans tell their stories, and bring them back to the theatre.

Sack said he envisioned plays moving from Soweto’s halls to the new theatre he oversees.

Actor-activists inspired South Africans to defeat apartheid. Artists say they can still inspire today, in a post-apartheid nation determined to defeat crime, violence against women and government corruption. Maredi’s latest play explores the challenges women face in post-apartheid South Africa, with actresses speaking out against horrifying rape statistics.

Maredi said, “We need theatre more today than we did during apartheid.” – Sapa-AP

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