The Next Act

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
, 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
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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