Towards Better Democracy

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When Coloured Girls Were Not Allowed the Play

Tales from Theatre in South Africa  – Two

An astonishing aspect of South Africa under Apartheid was that theatre was completely multiracial. On stage and off. Players and audiences. For the truth of the onstage part, look at all those Athol Fugard plays with multiracial casts, or wholly black casts. Harold and the Boys came to Broadway with the original South African cast.

The Market Theatre in Johannesburg had been completely multiracial since its inception. Sometime during 1977, after the play had completed its Broadway run, the completely black cast at the Market Theatre had been rehearsing For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf for some weeks when word came through that the playwright had denied performance of the play.

Now this was probably a good thing. It is doubtful that anyone at the American end, including Ntozake Shange, the playwright, was aware of the circumstances of the situation in Johannesburg.

It was probably a good thing because of the outcome. The cast, although deeply disappointed, had developed a strong bond with each other and were truly a working ensemble. So, what they decided to do was to create their own version. The structure very loosely followed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. The result was quite different from the choreopoem of Ntozake’s play. The cast used the play as an inspiration for an ensemble piece where each cast member brought to the stage a tale of life in the townships.

Now the townships for Johannesburg means the vast area known as Soweto; South Western Townships. If you had been following the 2010 World Soccer Cup in South Africa you will have heard mention of it.

So, back in 1977, the women each brought to the stage a moment from the incessant hardship of life in what were then referred to as shanty towns.

For any South African viewing the result, it was an intensely heart warming piece. Outside the theatre, the walls of Apartheid were very thick.

Years later, living in America, while studying for a Masters Degree in Theatre, I had an opportunity to take a play-writing class with Ntozake Shange.

I do not remember whether I mentioned the South African experience of the canceled rehearsals of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf or not. I may have felt too self-conscious.

On the other hand, if I did mention the experience, of watching the cast in Johannesburg rehearsing Ntozake’s play and then witnessing the enormous pride with which each cast member developed her own piece for the production they finally presented, I probably could not have done justice to it in relating it, for I do not remember her response.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa in Xhosa)

Filed under: Memoir, , , , , ,

The Night the Theatre Went Dark

Over this weekend I picked up a copy of Athol Fugard’s Plays One, published by Faber and Faber in 1998, with an introduction by the playwright.

Opening the book took me back to 1974 and Cape Town, South Africa, still  deep in the lock of Apartheid and a particularly poignant moment.  A  poignancy entwining the bright mimosa of theatre and the dark chocking  ivy of Apartheid’s officialdom

The theatre in question was the Space Theatre on Bloem Street right in the heart of the City of Cape Town.

The hard iron fist of the enforcing of South African separateness … well, we’ll get to that.

The Space Theatre (more fully The Space / Die Ruimte / Indawo Ye Zizwe,  representing three languages of the country) had been established by  Brian Astbury as a vehicle for his actress wife, Yvonne Bryceland.  The  theatre was defiantly multiracial from the start in a country where  everything was segregated in a fiercely draconian manner:  land,  business, housing schools, transport, restaurants, cinema.

The Space was a very brave place.

Early in the spring of 1974 Katriona, a friend, called me and said that she  had got involved in a project and wanted to meet with me to discuss it.   She needed my help.

Katriona was a very adventurous young woman of whom nothing would have surprised me.  However, this particular project did.

Katriona lived with her parents up behind Bellville at the end of the Cape Flats on the road to Parow.   She was studying for a degree in psychology at the University of Cape  Town. And she was fiercely political as only young people can be.

Katriona had somehow got a part time teaching job at a coloured school in the  Cape Flats, itself a brave thing to do for a young white South African  girl.  And the head mistress of the school had asked her if she would  mount a theatre production at the school using the school children. They  were aged ranging from middle school through high school.

Katriona and I had done community theatre together in the white suburbs  where we both lived and I suppose, somehow, Katriona’s previous theatre  experience had come out in conversation with the school headmistress.

So I got together with Katriona to find out more about her project.

Katriona sounded breathless and excited. She had decided to mount a production of Pygmalion,  by George Bernard Shaw, (the original stage version of the musical My Fair Lady, right!).

Inwardly I was a little amazed.  But I tried not to show it. How on earth  were we to take somewhat disadvantaged middle to high school children  and introduce them to the speech and mannerisms of late English  Victorian society?  Far less one of them to speak Cockney?

Katriona had already cast and was rehearsing.  Her Henry Higgins was the son  of a butcher who had chopped off his own hand at the age of seven   while helping his father in the shop.  Eliza turned out to be a petite,  demure little girl of Indian origin. Both children were utterly charming  as were the other cast members. And Katriona had chosen quite the largest  boy in the school to play Colonel Pickering.

Nonetheless, they were all as shy as could be in this new role and  needed a fair amount of coaxing. As rehearsals progressed and the children mastered their lines, their confidence drew immeasurably.

Performance night approached, the shyness vanished and the easy charm I had first seen returned.

Thus on stage, in set and clothed in costume, these little jewel  children, rotated and pirouetted with style, fit for any West End  production, if not Broadway.

The cast party after the performance, with parents and school mates present, was an uproarious affair, the joyous noise of which I am sure echoed across the Cape Flats.

The lead children had rehearsed three or four times as much as supporting cast members and had formed quite a tight little band.

Katriona and I looked round for some means of treating the leads for the effort they had put in.

So we booked tickets for eight, all that would fit in Katriona’s father’s Volkswagen van which I drove (you know, the style so popular for conversion into a camper).

The tickets were for a production opening the following Friday at the Space and we had booked for the Saturday.

I do not recall the play but it was certainly something like Sizwe Bansi is Dead by Athol Fugard, maybe The Island, something fiercely political.

The children were terribly excited to be going to a professional theatre. The play duly opened on the Friday and was promptly banned by  the government with no further performances allowed.

Disappointed we all certainly were. However, we were able to find a  restaurant in the city which, in defiance of Apartheid laws, allowed us all in.

Filed under: Memoir, , , , ,

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