The Market Theatre. Johannesburg is here in triplicate this Festival. Two of its leading lights talk to Sarah Hemming about South African Theatre.
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Xn; .-.‘:'+.,s'. ﬁg-‘t... ‘:-'-"‘,a,.'r't . j A few Festivals ago a production at the Traverse theatre brought clearly into focus for audiences in this country the energy and urgency of j Black South African theatre. The f production was Woza Albert! and
the company the Market Theatre of Johannesburg. There is a pleasing irony then in the fact that the several l directors of the three productions hailing from the Market Theatre at this year's Festival (Born in the RSA and Abisinamuli on the Festival and Bopha.’ from the Earth Players at the . Traverse) were all in some way involved in Woza Albert/z Barney Simon. Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema. 5
No-one needs reminding of the importance oftheir theatre and the immense urgency ofwhat they have to say this time. Theatre at its best can be a powerful and relevant force. illuminating and giving dimension to facts oflife. In this case. at present. we don‘t even have the facts to be illuminated. All the more significant then that Barney Simon should choose to define his production of Born in the RSA as ‘a living newspaper‘.
‘What I wanted to do was to identify the news stories that people don‘t bother to read any more about detention. You know sometimes it‘s a headline and sometimes it‘s a tiny little column. People have become quite calloused to that sort of news , because it‘s so frequent. What I ‘: wanted to do was to give a human l identity to that kind ofnews.’
Born in the RSA is a dramatically low-key. yet intense documentary piece of theatre in which seven separate characters step forward turn by turn and gradually relate their experiences ofdetention. The power and significance of the piece depends on its authenticity: the fact that it was entirely researched from real life by the actors themselves. .
‘When I do a play like Born in the 1 RSA it usually comes out of my sense of my community and things I feel
it’s time we stopped intellectualising too much about the political situation, but just found people‘s stories. It‘s the people who tell it all. And we can communicate that to other people as directors and actors. What I‘ve noticed is that when we go out and interview people, talk to people. it suddenly becomes a new experience for you, because you do not only discover the story, but you discover the soul ofthe living people — and that is what we reflect on stage.’
What Bop/ta! reﬂects with tremendous energy. humour and power, is the dilemma of the black policeman. the compromise to which he becomes subject and the way he can be used to turn his own people against him and one another. The passion that informs it and gives it its power has partly to do with the fact that Mtwa has himselfhad first hand experience of being arrested — as have many — several times. He recounts how he was once arrested for not having his pass-book with him and set to work on a farm. He ran away after a few days.
‘And about three weeks later they came for me. I rememberthat day. I got under the bed and I cried. And when this poor cop dragged me out from under the bed I realised that it was someone who lived nearby. And that was the thing— because I realised that here is the apartheid system setting people against each other. And that‘s what the play talks about. And ofcourse I tried not to tell it with such bitterness.’
In this he echoes Barney Simon — ‘it isn‘t just white against black, it’s black against black and white against white‘ — on the truly insidious effect of apartheid. Anyone who has seen Bopha!will testify to its ability to move and anger audiences. In South Africa itself. the play‘s energising effect has a different measure of urgency. And the reaction to it is part of its message and importance. reﬂecting the nature ofthat country
onto which these plays offer us a invaluable window: O I ‘There are places where we‘ve
performed in community halls
surrounded by police, simply
because the police saw the youth
flooding into the theatre because
they love the community hall. they
love the show. And when they come out there are armoured cars there.
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Percy Mtwa and Barney Simon of The MarketThealre
it‘s always been an extraordinary place to deal with in theatre. There‘s ' nowhere else I‘d prefer to be. I don‘t
I want to leave. Maybe I might be forced'to or something. but I don‘t
different. In contrast to Barney Simon‘s quiet, deliberated tone, Mtwa completely radiates energy
and determination, his face
constantly animated and breaking into ready smiles. The same vitality characterises his production,
Bopha!, which, unlike Simon’s quieter, more measured play, ; explodes onto the stage with startling , and impassioning force and humour. Mtwa attributes this energy to the situation in the countryz‘I think the energy is born particularly of the people in the townships. We always have to work hard to survive in that country and the energy is something people are now used to. You find
that energy on the streets; you find people shouting and jumping. So we use it to tell our story so that we capture the spirit of the people in South Africa. This is the theatre of
As a white South African his resolution to stay and insist on resistance to apartheid is unshakable. and he sees responsibility more widely for addressing the situation in South Africa as something that has to extend beyond verbal denouncements. So the vexed question ofsanctions: ‘It‘s difficult for me as a white to say. but I think if you ask me about sanctions, all I can say is - what else has worked? But I do see a further responsibility for the ' British .You can‘t just stop eaing i South African oranges and say right i . , I‘m doing my bit - what I‘m saying is, the Work'hg People. . _ there‘s a massive responsibility if the For Mtwat one Of the onglhal British are really going to consider ' Couabotatms 0" W92? Albert/v Southern Africa, because a lot of the T hatheSSthg that Spmt .13 a matter 0f damage that is there, including - thtemahOhal and hahOhal apartheid, happened under their - tmportahceiiwhen We . rule.‘ - left South Africa with Woza Albert!
From the outside it may seem a People '00ked at US 35 ambassadofs-
curious thing that theatre like that of They felt that We were hOt only 80mg Barney Simon can continue to Show People Overseas What “’35 unimpeded. criticising the system. haPPCh'hg 1“ 500th Africa» bUt 3'50 and remaining in operation even Show themjthat We can do well . throughout the recent horrific ‘ th1h8§- [tglves SUCh a sens? 0t Pride developments. and dignity to see that their own ‘It‘s not a thing I question or even F PCPP'c‘a’e capable Ordomg SUCh think about. You develop certain thmgs' _ . . . : instincts, you become Streetwise — ReStonhg d'gmt)’ t0 hls People Simon is an immensely gentle. : and at a certain point a” you do is through theatre is an objective for soft-spoken man, whose white beard ; your work, so you go as far as you Mtwa on many levels. One of his and quiet. candid manner seem to i can until you‘ré stopped. principal aims at the moment is to bespeak a wisdom gained from long ~j‘m “0i sure what they‘re about, . establish more permanent theatres
that I want to clarify for myself. I usually gather together a group of actors whose chemistry I feel will get 3 on well and I send them out into the l streets. They go to the law courts and places and they smell out what is I happening.‘
years in a country where man‘s ':
ability to be inhuman to his fellow-man is immortalised in the law. Since he founded the famous Market Theatre 12 years ago, the theatre movement has changed and developed; the apartheid system it addresses, however, has all too clearly not been dismantled. Simon remains, surprisingly, unembittered and undefeated.
‘When I first started it was illegal to do multi-racial theatre in any kind of
public venue and the only way I
could do it was privately. I’ve always
been urgent about it. The country is more obviously dramatic now. but
but it‘s not interesting. Ifyou stop to think about them it‘s like stopping to deliberate on how you balance on two feet. You know what I mean? You‘ve got to keep on with your work. And if you stop, you stop. People come to a play like RSA because they‘re hungry for the information and the sense of reality it oontains.’
Percy Mtwa voices exactly the same sense ofhunger and necessity to survive — ‘living in that country you keep your fingers crossed and you do what you have to do.
The driving force may be the same
- the man could scarcely be more
in the townships in South Africa, to provide an outlet for the many writers he knows of ,to give work to South African actors and to give theatre a more solid base. It is an ambition that is awesomely difficult to pursue and fraught with financial headaches — Mtwa is desperately in need of sponsorship. The whole situation has recently acquired more urgency with the state ofemergency - productions usually performed in community halls have been cancelled
On his stage, in common with Barney Simon, he presents material
gained from first hand knowledge
And we‘re used to it. We live with it. We live with itdown there. I think
this is what the world cannot
‘Whenever we leave South Africa,
the airport is always packed with
people.It‘slikethey‘re waiting—like ' they‘re hopingthat we‘re going to
Barney Simon's Born in the RSA has finished in Edinburgh but has
' transfered to London; Percy M (we ’5
Bopha.’ runs until 30 Aug at the Traverse Theatre; M bon gent Ngema ’s Asinamuli runs 25-2 7
A ugust at St Bride '3 Centre and 28—30 A ugust at the Royal Lyceum.
. __. . .___l The List 22 Aug- 4 Sept 7