Curtain up for Soweto’s new theatre

As you drive east on Bolani Road in the township of Jabulani, the Soweto Theatre rises majestically from the adjacent plain. Three boxes — one yellow, one red and one blue — are distinct from the sprawling Jabulani Mall to your right and the monotonous multistorey housing developments all around. The postmodern edifice, a monumental mixture of squares, glass floors, tensile tents, arc shapes and parabolic curves, is euphoric and melodramatic, inviting one to snap it with a smartphone.

A day after a media siege of the complex, the Mail & Guardian spoke to the principal architect, Lawrence Chibwe of the company Afritects, who said the brief was to design a structure that was “approachable” and yet “bold enough to make Sowetans proud”.

When the idea of the theatre complex was conceived, the muse was the metropolitan Young Vic theatre in London. The firm, which has never worked on a project of this nature before (save for a school theatre in Rustenburg), must count itself especially fortunate. Apparently, a ­commission to design and build a performance arts space is the ultimate and most liberating of architectural duties. It hired Denis ­Hutchinson, who has worked on countless other theatre design jobs, as a consultant.

Afritects realised the pitfalls that lay ahead: the architects had to use the template of a European metropolitan theatre but it had to be designed for and built on an open, inviting location in a township.

Foremost on the minds of the architects and city bureaucrats working on the project, on a budget of R150-million, was to make sure the “boxes were visible all the time, [to] expose all of them all of the time”.

That seems to be the mantra when designing structures of this nature. According to famous international architecture journalist Michael Hammond, the edifice itself must “create an experience and a sense of place for its … audience. It is with such tangibles that events can win against home entertainment.”

Chibwe, on the phone, said that in order not to take attention away from the boxes, the architects had to understate the rest of the structure, which explains the grey walls and panels (known in design parlance as blinkers, housing air conditioning and other electrical installations).  

The site of the theatre is adjacent to the iconic old Jabulani Amphitheatre where, in 1985, Zindzi Mandela read a letter she had received from her father, then on Robben Island, care had to be taken to acknowledge it. What strikes one about the theatre is actually its colourful “bum” and not the glazed façade that sardonically grins at the old amphitheatre.

“We wanted the two structures to link and communicate,” Chibwe said.

Creative spaces

The complex houses three theatres with varying capacities: the main theatre houses 450, whereas the two smaller theatres seat 180 and 90 people, respectively. And if you add the tensile tented structure outside the main foyer and the amphitheatre, you have a total of five theatres.

The main theatre has a proscenium-arched stage. Although this stage was designed with theatre productions in mind, it does not mean it will be overwhelmed by musicals (the venue boasts an orchestra pit) and the like. Indeed, Malian legend Salif Keita and his acoustic band will perform on May 25, celebrated on the continent as Africa Day.

Although the first thing developers in South Africa consider when constructing a building, even a public one, is how to secure it from “undesirables”, the Soweto Theatre will be something of an exception: it will not be fenced off. “We didn’t want the city to put up a fence; we want the local people to interact [unhindered] with the space. If they put up a fence, they would have sanitised the place,” Chibwe said.

Steven Sack, the city’s roving arts troubleshooter and commissar (and acting chief executive of the venue), said the idea was to use the complex to regenerate the whole neighbourhood.

“The theatre will be at the core of this development. By having a theatre, the value of these properties will go up,” he said, adding that the theatre would be one of the stars in the productions it hosted.  

The entire area, not just the vicinity of the theatre complex, has the feel of a giant construction site. Multistorey flats are in various stages of construction: some units are finished, others are being plastered and there is talk of refurbishing the Jabulani train station and extending the nearby Jabulani Mall.  

The private developer of these flats did not pay a cent for the land — the company entered into a kind of a barter deal with the Jo’burg council: the city handed over eight land lots and in return the developer was expected to build a theatre.

Claiming their space

The M&G spoke to a few people from the community. Sibusiso Dlamini, a vendor hawking sweets and cigarettes outside the theatre complex, perhaps overwhelmed, deadpanned: “This theatre is going to be a good thing.”

His work partner, Stan Mbatha, was equally enthusiastic. “I knew this space when it was a rocky, wild place,” he said. But ­Mbatha said he loved the place so much that “it would be nice to have a vending stall in the theatre itself”.

Enterprising Sowetans, for long denied state-of-the-art facilities, are already finding ways to make the space their own.

The Soweto Theatre will be officially opened on May 25. Performances include Isiqalo (The Beginning) by the Vuyani Dance Theatre, with choreography by Gregory Maqoma; the Soweto Jazz Orchestra, directed by Khaya Mahlangu; and Concord Nkabinde, with Gloria Bosman.

Tickets range from R30 to R60.

The Suitcase, directed by James Ngcobo, is now running at the theatre until June 1.
Salif Keita will play at the theatre on May 27; doors open at 2pm.

The Soweto Theatre is at the corner of Bolani Road and Bolani Link in Jabulani. Book at Computicket or phone 011 674 1357

Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.
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