Magazine article The Nation

Township Theater; Woza Afrika!: A Festival of South African Theater

Magazine article The Nation

Township Theater; Woza Afrika!: A Festival of South African Theater

Article excerpt

Township Theater Woza Afrika!: A Festival of South African Theater

By Anybody's standards, the participants in this fall's Woza Afrika! festival at Lincoln Center have had to survive the most punishing of theatrical circumstances. Of the playwrights, Percy Mtwa (Bhopa!) has been detained for thirty days in the Transkei Bantustan; Matsemela Manaka (Children of Asazi) and Maishe Maponya (Gangsters) have had their work banned; and, when vigilantes from Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha movement stormed a performance of Asinamali! seeking the blood of the absent playwright, Mbongeni Ngema, they murdered the show's promoter in his stead. Moreover, one member of the original cast of Asinamali! was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the Lamontville rent strike, the very strike which touched off the play itself.

The daily conditions facing black directors, playwrights and actors in South Africa compound the effects of such naked state violence. There is still not one permanent theater or professional theater company in Soweto or in any of the other townships. The atmosphere at performances is often tense because of the presence of informers. State support has been denied to black directors who, in any case, regard such funding as compromising. Black township theater is far worse off than the multiracial theater at venues such as the Market Theatre, which, situated in the heart of Johannesburg, can tap a wealthier, white audience. While a small number of blacks may travel the prohibitive distance to the Market over weekends, it is rare for whites to attend theater in the townships. It is not so surprising then that, according to Maponya, talented but destitute actors have on occasion been lured away from amateur township productions by the state-run South African Broadcasting Corporation, the long arm of apartheid propaganda.

All the festival's plays have had runs at the Market, which has helped to sustain them financially, but most of them were devised specifically for the townships, where a broad renaissance in the performing arts has been developing since the late 1970s. In addition to community and trade-union theater, a tenacious tradition of poetic performance has arisen at mass funerals and rallies. The resistance movement nourishes those cultural forms, which often serve as political catalysts. For that reason, popular performances are particularly threatening to the regime; they can reach where printed material cannot: they require neither literacy nor the money to buy books.

In the townships, it is a short step from the street to the stage and back. The enacted violence, rage, fear and defiance reflect the experience of the communities from which the theater has emerged. In Manaka's words, "Black theater. . . .should not be imported from town, but must be produced and found where black people live. The squatters, slums and ghettos should be its stage. Mampara bricks, corrugated zinc, the mud and stench in the streets should be its costume."

Manaka raises, implicitly, the central dilemma for participants in the Woza Afrika! festival. What happens to the plays when they are exported to the Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater? There are two dimensions to this dilemma: funding and staging conditions. The financing of the festival has been criticized by those who fear cultural cooptation by companies eager to shore up influence in the arts, education and the unions. Organizations rendered financially vulnerable by apartheid are seeking to benefit from this funding yet simultaneously to preserve their integrity. Accepting funds often requires treading the fine line between much needed support and the kind of manipulative intervention that could ultimately jeopardize organizational autonomy.

The festival's funding dilemma is more easily stated than resolved, particularly as the plays have served the valuable function of giving Americans a wider perspective on South Africa's culture of resistance. …

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