The Next Act

South African theater searches for a post-apartheid identity

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During the apartheid years, courageous and creative South African theater people fought the system from the stage. Playwrights Mbongeni Ngema (Sarafina!) and Athol Fugard, writer-actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, director Barney Simon (whose Market Theatre in Johannesburg was a showcase for Fugard and Ngema) and scores of others created internationally renowned political theater by confronting the stark evils of South African official racism. But apartheid is dead, a Mandela-led Government of National Unity rules in Pretoria, and South African theater, like everything else in the country, is undergoing an uneasy time of transition.

According to a cluster of articles in the latest issue of the Yale School of Drama's Theater magazine, South African stages are struggling to come to terms with the complexities of a deeply troubled society that is multi-ethnic, not simply biracial. So far, the results have been mixed, with sentimentalism, nostalgia, and innocent optimism prevailing.

The officially sponsored extravaganza Many Cultures, One Nation, performed at Mandela's April 1993 inauguration, was a euphoric and simple-minded multiculti fusion -- Afrikaner accordion music and township jive and Zulu dances jumbled together. At the Market Theatre, Barney Simon celebrated the election and inauguration with a revival of a 1987 hit, Sophiatown, set in a multiracial community in the 1950s, just before the passage of the apartheid laws. The award-winning Fugard, who has confessed that he's been at a loss for an enemy to oppose since apartheid's end, put together a touching performance piece called My Life where five young girls from different ethnic groups, each tell of their lives and hopes in their own words. It debuted at last year's National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown.

Another of Simon's projects has been The Suit, a stage adaptation of a short story by Can Themba. Also set in the well-remembered Sophiatown, the play was a notable first for black South African theater: a realistic depiction of black private life. As Carol Steinberg and Malcolm Purkey explain in THEATER, anti-apartheid plays tended to be political theater as Bertholt Brecht defined it: music, big gestures, direct address to the audience, and black characters who represented injustice with a capital I. With the end of the great struggle -- and the end of the official denigration of black experience -- a space has been opened for a realistic play about individual black human beings in their own houses and rooms. Elsewhere it would be old hat; in South Africa it's a small revolution.



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