South Africa


From eKasi to the Baxter — the rise of theatre in the townships

From eKasi to the Baxter — the rise of theatre in the townships
Akhona Shinga in a performance of Inkumbulo at Makukhanye Art Room in Khayelitsha. Makukhanye hosted mini-festivals where up and coming performers could showcase their work ahead of the Zabalaza Theatre festival. Photo: Supplied.

The Zabalaza theatre festival, which takes place at the University of Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre, is one of the few platforms bringing ‘township theatre’ to the mainstream. That’s because theatre in these communities often goes unnoticed, or struggles due to limited funding. Despite these challenges, young, talented theatre practitioners and artists are creating alternative theatre spaces to tell their stories and effect change.

Theatre is mostly ignored in the townships,” said Ayabonga Bebe, a young actor from Khayelitsha performing in this year’s Zabalaza Theatre Festival at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.

The annual festival is a development programme targeted at up-and-coming performers from in and around the Western Cape. They have an opportunity to showcase their work (and works in progress) at mini-festivals, script readings and finally at the main theatre festival — at the Baxter — which was held from 8 to 16 March 2019. The aim is to assist theatre practitioners in crafting and developing their works and build on their existing skills and talent.

Bebe, who is from Khayelitsha, is a part of a production titled The Vow, presented by Lekker Jy Productions — a theatre group from Parow. The play is based on isiXhosa Culture and rituals, and tackles the issue of arranged marriages and homosexuality.

There are things that our forefathers did that we see differently today. For example, they would not allow a man to date another man,” he said.

I can see in Khayelitsha that there are people who are gay and ‘underground’. They are afraid to express themselves because they won’t be accepted.”

The play tells the story of a young couple forced into an arranged marriage, only for the wife to discover that her husband is gay.

For Bebe, “silent” issues such as these are brought to light more powerfully on the stage, but he feels that people in township communities “don’t understand theatre”.

We put on shows but (few people) will show up.”

Zabalaza Theatre festival Curator Mdu Kweyama (left) and Artistic Director Bongile Mantsai (right) give the welcoming address at the festival’s opening night on 8 March 2019. Photo: Sandisiwe Shoba

Audiences both within and outside the townships are paying scant attention to community theatre. Zabalaza is a festival that highlights that theatre not only exists within townships, but that it should gain recognition both within the township space and in the so-called mainstream.

According to Bongile Mantsai, the artistic director for the Zabalaza theatre festival, the lack of interest from audiences in the townships is not the only reason community theatre is being ignored.

There is a gap between community theatre and the mainstream,” he said.

We don’t have enough platforms to tell our stories.”

For Mantsai, this is why in 2010, Zabalaza theatre festival, then called ikhwezi, was born.

For a long time, the only way to tell our stories was to perform them ekasi (in the township), but there was no exposure, there was almost nothing for young black voices.”

Initially, Zabalaza was exclusively for traditional theatre performances and although this is still the main focus, it has expanded to include other genres.

According to Mdu Kweyama, the curator for Zabalaza, the festival is working towards fulfilling “every form of theatre”.

We can’t, for example, say that poetry is not theatre,” he said.

[That’s why] we started giving a platform to poetry, reggae, hip hop, spoken word and dance.”

Despite the scant exposure, dedicated theatre spaces are opening up within the townships.

Lubabalo Nontwana performing ‘Locked Out Souls’ at Makukhanye Art Room in Khayelitsha. The Makukhanye theatre was built by self-proclaimed theatre activist Mandisi Sindo. Photo: Supplied

One such space is the Makukhanye Art Room in Khayelitsha, founded by self-proclaimed theatre activist Mandisi Sindo.

It is the only shack theatre in the world,” he said.

Sindo, who himself lived in a shack for 25 years of his life, built the facility out of zinc and planks. A few arts organisations donated equipment to assist the venue.

The Fugard donated lights that cost R230,000 and the Baxter spent about R100,000 fixing our electricity, and now we can use about 20 lights.”

He claims, however, that this assistance only came after he complained on social media about the lack of support for Makukhanye from mainstream theatres.

I wrote on Facebook that I do not understand why artistic directors from Baxter, Artscape, Fugard, and all of those theatres are not coming to Makukhanye Art Room to watch shows. I go to such theatres every night paying for tickets,” he expressed.

Sindo is a passionate and dynamic character. He calls himself a ‘theatre activist’ because he feels he’s fighting for the marginalised and bringing opportunities to ekasi.

There is exclusion experienced by black actors, black communities and black art from the townships,” he said.

According to Sindo, the theatre, which has been running for 10 years, is mostly self-funded.

Luckily I am a freelancer and I’ve been able to get friends and investors to help in this space, so we’ve (survived without) funding from government and the City of Cape Town.”

Makukhanye is one of the venues where the Zabalaza mini-festivals were held. Applicants were required to submit a synopsis of their works/works in progress to the Baxter, from there, selected works were performed at mini-festivals in Khayelitsha and at the Black Box Theatre in Delft. The best works from the mini-festivals were chosen for the main Zabalaza programme.

Liso Sindo (kneeling) and Akhona Shinga (standing) in a performance of Inkumbulo by Asanda Rilityana at Makukhanye Art Room in Khayelitsha. Photo: Supplied

Sindo admits that limited funding poses a huge challenge for Makukhanye.

Last year (2018) we had the Makukhanye Art Speaks and Heals residency which we had to close down because there are no funds for the programme,” he said.

We had kids coming from Mfuleni township who were walking 11km to the theatre and most of them were robbed. Because of that, they lost faith in the programme.”

Despite this, the residency was able to find jobs and tuition for about 15 of its participants.

Some are at Artscape, others are at UCT and others are working for one of the biggest (audiovisual suppliers), Gearhouse South Africa.”

For Sindo, Makukhanye is not a space where mainstream stories are adapted for township audiences, it is a space where the community can tell its own stories.

He references Mdantsane Grooves, a musical duo featuring Sindo’s wife Liso Somila Toyi Sindo (on vocals) and Luyolo Lenga on vocals and guitar. The duo is managed by Sindo and is accompanied by Wimbo Project, a multi-genre music collective. Mdantsane Grooves was also chosen for the Zabalaza festival.

The songs that are being sung there speak about issues that are happening currently, not only in the township, but in South Africa as a whole,” he said.

Issues like young girls being raped and murdered in the townships.

Also issues like #FeesMustFall. For example, leaders of #FeesMustFall like Masixole Mlandu and Chumani Maxwele are poets and they use Makukhanye.”

Zabalaza has displayed the diversity of themes and issues present within township communities, from land reform and education to traditional rites of passage, bullying, gender roles, racial tensions and corruption within government.

According to Mdu Kweyama, the writing showcased at the festival is a sign of the times.

If you see what those kids are talking about, it’s very current. For example, back in the day we wrote about apartheid because that’s what we were dealing with. Today we’re writing about corruption.”

For Asandiswa Maliti, a performer at the Zabalaza festival in a production titled Chappies, if people don’t watch community theatre they won’t understand the current problems in the township.

Problems like public transport, drugs and gangs,” she said.

This is Maliti’s second year performing at Zabalaza. In 2018 she received a scholarship to City Varsity to further her studies.

According to Kweyama and Mantsai, Zabalaza is ultimately a platform to give back.

The proceeds from ticket sales go back to the performers. And this year (2019), the Best in Zabalaza winner will have their script published,” they said.

The festival ended at the weekend, culminating in an awards ceremony on Saturday 16 March. The festival will return for its 10th instalment in 2020. DM


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