Soweto’s first professional theatre staged its opening show on Wednesday night, providing a tribute to a local icon and a gateway to engaging narrative. The night got a standing ovation, perhaps the first of many. By GREG NICOLSON.
The Soweto Theatre dominates a block across the road from the Jabulani Mall, an underwhelming version of every other mall you’ve ever seen. But the theatre towers over its surroundings. From the street it looks like an assortment of enormous coloured building blocks leaning on each other.
It could be a grand, modern theatre in any city, but it retains touches of Soweto, such as an outline of the Orlando Towers on the entrance. Yellow tiles line one part of a street-facing wall. Glass panels scale the rear of the building, with concrete floors inside.
Jabulani (joy) is in the heart of Soweto. It is a single taxi from almost anywhere. Before the theatre opened its doors for its first performance on Wednesday night, the 40% of Johannesburg residents who live in Soweto had no permanent theatre. It was launched by the mayoral committee in 2007 as a legacy project of the Fifa World Cup and building started in 2009.
The theatre can benefit Soweto in a number of ways, explained Steven Sacks, director of arts, culture and heritage for the City of Johannesburg, who has been overseeing the project. “It brings theatre to a wider audience.” It also provides more activities for Sowetan youth and talented kids.
“I think it’s bringing the live arts to our very own ground,” said Sibusiso Mlambo, 28, from Protea North, Soweto. Previously, he would have had to travel to venues like the Market Theatre in Newtown. The late return trip made those trips infrequent.
After the performance, Mlambo said it’s special because it’s unlike the movies normally on offer in Soweto. The theatre is open to expressions of interest and has a small budget to fund its own productions. It will soon host legendary Afro-pop singer Salif Kaita.
Sacks hopes locals and tourists will embrace the theatre. Whether or not residents from outside Soweto will visit, we’ll have to wait and see, he said. But ticket prices are affordable and the venue is on par with the city’s best.
The theatre’s opening show is an adaptation of Es’kia Mphahlele’s short story “The Suitcase”. Director James Ngcobo said: “There’s been a cry for years about taking theatre to the people.”
He ran out of words to describe the honour of being the first director to stage a production at the new venue. “It’s an amazing gift that the government has given to the world of narrative,” said the actor, writer and director.
Set in the 1950s, The Suitcase is a story of hope and despair. With dreams of returning to their village with money in their pockets, a young couple head to Durban with little but their love. The husband battles shame as his hopes of finding work and providing for his pregnant wife continue to fade.
The story was written by a Sowetan, performed in a mix of English, Zulu and Sotho and stars some of the country’s most well-known performers: Siyabonga Thwala, Xolile Tshabalala, Samson Khumalo and Bheki Mkhwane.
The story of the husband desperately searching the streets for a job is still relevant today. The Suitcase was chosen as the theatre’s opening performance because it celebrates a Sowetan icon, Mphahlele, has a line-up of talented performers and Sacks was adamant they start by offering serious theatre to Johannesburg’s entertainment-saturated space.
“I always cry about collective amnesia in this country because we have become a nation with no memory,” said Ngcobo. “(Mphahlele) should be a gateway of narrative… Imagine pieces by Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe being performed here,” he said, waving his had over the space.
As the nation debates different versions of its own history, establishing a collective memory and creating dialogue through the arts was all-important. But after the Soweto Theatre’s opening performance, the mood was one of jubilation.
There was an impressive venue, a stimulating performance and a drink at the bar. The joy of the theatre had come to Jabulani. DM
- Soweto theatre aims to foster township’s cultural revolution in The Guardian.
Photo: DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.