The Gift of Belonging
A Journey Into South African Theatre
This week on HowlRound, we cast our gaze across oceans towards the world of South African theatre. A nation characterized by its Apartheid legacy and struggle for liberation, we hear the story of a nation reborn and the art at its center through the voices of some of its most dynamic artists. Find the full series here.
When I was asked by the folks at HowlRound if I would be interested in curating a week on South African theatre, my brain said, “Really?” while my mouth said, “Yes!” After I hung up the phone, I pondered two fundamental questions: Why did they ask me? Who am I to talk about South African theatre?
The first question was a bit easier to get my head around. I'm a theatre practitioner and I’ve lived in South Africa full time since 2003. More and more when I think of home, or when asked where home is, Johannesburg is at the forefront of my mind. It rolls off my tongue as easily as the actual location of my birth. The second question is one I'm still grappling with, but as I reflected on my personal and creative journey in South Africa, my questioned switched to, “Why not me?”
I'd never seen such meaningful and intentional theatre before moving to South Africa. It has been even more gratifying becoming part of this daunting and bewitching community.
In the twelve years I've been in South Africa, I've become part of the fabric of a vibrant artistic community that stretches from the stark, cool beauty of Capetown to the lush, rolling hills of Kwa Zulu Natal and everywhere in between. I've had the pleasure of working in mainstream spaces and township community halls. Each encounter and environment has deposited something meaningful and changed me a bit at a time. South Africa has made me her own in very subtle and surprising ways. The claiming was so gradual that I hadn't realized it had happened until, on a stroll along 4th Avenue in Parkhurst, a suburb of Johannesburg, I ran into an actor friend. He was seated at a little table at Mugg and Bean, a favorite breakfast spot. We greeted each other warmly and he introduced me to his companion with, “This is Antonio Lyons, one of our finest actors.” Just like that, the Gift of Belonging was bestowed. I was surprised and grateful.
I moved to South Africa a broken man; a disillusioned actor in search of peace and the creative drive that had sustained me for decades. In South Africa, theatre is everywhere. Everyday interactions are a performance that incorporates complex language structures filled with wisdom, metaphors, and humor. It’s on street corners and mall courtyards where pantomime and dance are activated by the toss of a coin. It's in funerals and weddings where the performance of millennium old rituals commingle with contemporary culture. It's in traditional theatre spaces, road shows, and community halls. I'd never seen such meaningful and intentional theatre before moving to South Africa. It has been even more gratifying becoming part of this daunting and bewitching community.
Its genesis can be found in a rich cultural tradition of African theatre practices that incorporate mechanisms for documenting everyday life as well as airing community grievances. The apartheid era in South Africa would see the birth of Protest Theatre, which served to give the people a voice where they had none and communicate important ideas of selfhood and resistance. It is an aesthetic that was filled with subterfuge as it fused traditional African theatre with western theatrical conventions. Some of the greatest collaborations of this era came out of the Market Theatre. Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema—who had also worked with Gibson Kente, touring shows created for black audiences—collaborated with Barney Simon to create Woza Albert. The play explores what would happen if Jesus dropped in on Christian apartheid South Africa. John Kani, Winston Ntshona, and Athol Fugard had unparalleled success with Sizwe Banzi is Dead, in which a man takes on a dead man's official papers. Kani and Ntshona were arrested in the Transkei while performing the play. While the Market Theatre is one of the most notorious houses to create and produce work that challenged the apartheid regime, there were many more scattered across the country. Those spaces were filled with artists willing to risk their lives and use their artistry to educate and empower the people. Some of those spaces were: The Space Theatre (Cape Town), Junction Avenue Company (Johannesburg), Kessie Govender's Shah Theatre Academy (Kwa Zulu Natal), Ikhwezi Players (Grahamstown), and Rob Amato's Imitha Players (East London). I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the thriving artistic mecca of the 1950’s Sophiatown.
The opportunity to curate a week of reflections on South African theatre provides an opportunity to have a more critical conversation about what it means to be a theatre artist in Post-Apartheid South Africa. The artist contributors that I’ve invited to be a part of this discussion have built upon these rich theatrical traditions. They are poets, directors, agitators, truth seekers, singers, dancers, directors, producers, ground-breakers, and theatremakers. They have all been pivotal in shaping my experience of belonging in South Africa. These practitioners are making their own unique contribution to a country and community still defining and questioning its complex identities. Through them, we delve into the rich history of South African theatre as reflected in Ditshomo, a recent documentary narrated and produced by Napo Masheane that criss-crosses the country illuminating a rich theatrical history. We see the vibrant legacy of community theatre reflected by Mxolisi Masilela and his youth driven theatre company, TX Theatre Productions. We see the rise of women administrators in Warona Seane, who deftly straddles the line between a practicing artist and the Artistic Director of South Africa’s newest gem, the state of the art Soweto Theater. We get an aerial view of an industry whose shifting dynamics is a reflection of a nation in flux from Ismail Mohammed, Festival Director of the National Arts Festival.
Thank you for embarking on this journey with us. Thank you to each contributor who has bravely chosen to share a corner of his or her artistic soul with you. Thank you, South Africa, for embracing me so fully. The road continues to be an otherworldly experience, yet as familiar and comfortable as my favorite pair of socks. Hambakhale!