Challenge and Response: The Changing Face of Theater in South Africa

By Brink, Andre | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Challenge and Response: The Changing Face of Theater in South Africa


Brink, Andre, Twentieth Century Literature


In his introduction to the published version of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, Athol Fugard summarized his approach to the shaping of the play (in close collaboration with the two actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona) as "challenge and response": challenges thrown out by the director, to which the actors were invited to respond; challenges devised by the actors, to which the director had to invent a response. But once it went into performance, Sizwe Bansi itself became a challenge to which audiences responded - a response often so dramatic that some performances of a play initially intended to last for 60 minutes or so continued for up to 3 hours. In other words, here the audience reaction posed a challenge to which the play-in-performance responded by changing its own shape. And if one takes another step back, Sizwe Bansi as a whole may be viewed as a theatrical response to the very complicated and dynamic sociopolitical situation that may be summarized as "apartheid." At the same time, the performances of the play, as of other plays by Fugard and other dramatists, black and white, posed a challenge to which the apartheid situation, and the regime controlling it, were forced to find new responses. In short, Fugard's play illustrates a highly textured dialectic in which much of the functioning of the arts, but most pertinently of theater, during the apartheid era was foregrounded.

This paper focuses on different expressions of this dialectic in different phases and on different social and cultural levels of South Africa under apartheid. In this way I hope to arrive at an evaluation of the critical new challenges faced by theater in the country today. My focus on South Africa does not mean that I have any wish to inflate the importance or the significance of theater in what for many must be a geographically remote place, at first sight perhaps peripheral to the theater of the West. But I hope that by looking at the complexity of the two-way challenge-and-response relationship in one specific context, some questions about the possible place and function of theater in today's world at large may be illuminated.

Two of the terms I have just used need early clarification. The relationship between theater and society works in (at least) two directions, because nobody in her or his right mind would suggest that theater, or any other form of art for that matter, can ever be "explained" as a mere response to a mere challenge. Certainly, in South Africa at least, as the playwright Zakes Mda recently emphasized in "Current Trends in Theater-for-Development in South Africa," theater has not only responded to challenges but also has become, itself, a catalyst for social and political change.

The second term I wish to emphasize is the matter of questions, rather than answers. For I hold with the poet Allan Vizents that "an artist is a problem finder, not a problem solver."

It is necessary, at the outset, to have some understanding of the constraints placed on theater under apartheid. First of all, and most obviously, until a comparatively late stage, neither audiences nor casts could be mixed, except by special permit. This meant that, by and large, white experience had to be interpreted to white audiences by white actors in theaters designated for whites only. Black theatrical presentations were predominantly confined to black audiences, more often than not without any of the facilities (lighting, costumes, sound effects, even a decent auditorium, even a stage) which white theater would regard as a sine qua non. And theater for so-called "coloured" people, like most of life's other experiences, found itself somewhere between that of the two main groups - usually characterized by the same deprivation as black theater, but sometimes with slightly improved facilities, as at the Three Arts Theater or in the Eoan Opera Group in Cape Town.

Even within the separate groups, censorship imposed further restrictions. Some of the most daring cultural opposition to the political establishment came from within theater, and actors, directors, even management in the (all-white) performing arts councils of the different provinces (particularly in the Orange Free State) often made commendable efforts to challenge apartheid in their productions. …

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