Academic journal article Themes in Theatre

Playing with Change: Repetition and Innovation in Township Performance

Academic journal article Themes in Theatre

Playing with Change: Repetition and Innovation in Township Performance

Article excerpt

In the contemporary post post-apartheid moment in South Africa (Kruger 1999), in the townships which surround Cape Town, theatre is commonly practised by many young people with intense enthusiasm. There are literally dozens of theatre groups, comprising young people in or just out of school, that meet weekly or daily to rehearse and make plays. Often the groups work with no clear notion of when their next performance opportunity will occur. Nevertheless they continue to make plays. Why do they do it? They do it because it is fun. They enjoy it, it serves their needs for sociability and pleasure; it feels worthwhile, they learn skills and have a voice to comment on their world by means of theatre.1 When they find occasional performance opportunities these are validating and identity-building.

Young people from the black townships around Cape Town have good reason for being avid fans of the performing arts and of sport. These townships have mostly developed with incredible speed since 1985. Nearly eighty percent of the population of Khayelitsha, Cape Town's newest and largest township, has arrived from the rural Eastern Cape within the last fifteen years (Ndegwa, Homer & Esau, 2007). The older folk amongst these recent immigrants have had little or no opportunity for schooling beyond the primary level and the younger generation are growing up in a context in which the urban infrastructure including electricity, water, refuse removal, roads, public health facilities and schooling is barely adequate. They have little or no access to libraries, theatres, public recreation facilities or shopping centres.2 In these circumstances, access to radio and television are generally aspired to, and on local television what is patently evident is the success of young black South Africans in the world of sports and in the television industry itself. This somewhat explains the keen enthusiasm for sports and for acting in plays, because such pursuits may be the initial step to a career on the field or the small screen. Moreover, many social and cultural practices in the townships are performance-based, and so young people come to theatre making with already honed skills and a performative disposition.3

This chapter will explore the influence that township playing culture exerts on township theatre-making practices with particular reference to the productive interplay between stable elements and the always improvisatory. The circumstances of township performers and performing prompts an exploration of the tension between the playful, youthfully naïve, yet allegorical performance style, and the grave political themes of contemporary significance with which many of the township plays deal, including the one, Mzantsi, selected for discussion later in this chapter.4

The discussion will begin by briefly re-examining what is understood by playing culture in order to understand its significance for township performance. It will examine the relationship between the township playing culture and the local performance-based repertoire, with a view to discerning why the latter predisposes local youth to theatre making. The key dispositions influencing theatre-making will be identified and their effects on the interplay between repetition and innovation explored in a single play created by Iqhude Theatre Group of Macassar, Khayelitsha, in 2006. Finally, attention will be drawn to the Mzantsi play's significance as social commentary.


In a book which explores playing culture it is likely that the concept will accrue a range of descriptions and cover a range of activities that mostly have a playful orientation. Activities falling within the rubric of playing culture are usually voluntary. They have identifiable boundaries in time and space, and generally are social and communicative in nature. Such activities rest upon commonly held rules / customs / conventions, in which those participating or spectating are invested through interest, belief or imaginative engagement. …

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