More black artists to grace future Naledis

Edward Tsumele

Edward Tsumele

More black faces can be expected at future Naledi Theatre Awards as a direct result of Lebo M's outburst at this year's ceremony.

Dawn Lindberg, creator of the Naledis, announced plans to form a new board of the theatre awards during a heated debate about transformation of the industry this week. She said the Naledis would also try to find "committed" black judges.

"The Naledi Awards are now going to announce a new board to look at issues of transformation that have been voiced at this discussion," she told the group gathered at the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg.

The debate came after Lebo M turned down the award for best production for a musical at the fifth yearly ceremony two weeks ago for his hit show, the Lion King. He stunned the guests when he launched a scathing attack against the awards for being unrepresentative of black South Africans, particularly when it came to awarding excellence to black thespians.

Lebo M also suggested that he had been given an inferior seat at the back of the theatre.

His remarks triggered a flurry of debates on radio, in newspapers and on television about transformation in theatre.

Monday's debate was chaired by the jazz singer Sibongile Khumalo. It was organised by the Market Theatre to allow public debate about the issue.

The heated discussion involved audience members, who are in the business of grilling the panel of senior theatre figures. These included theatre icons such as John Kani, the TV producer and playwright Duma Ndlovu, Lebo M, playwright Mike van Graan, chief executive of the Playhouse in Durban Linda Bukhosini, cultural activist Ishmail Mohamed, producer Richard Loring, Market Theatre artistic director Malcolm Purkey, Southern African Theatre Initiative executive secretary Mpho Molepo and Lindberg.

The panel robustly discussed transformation in the theatre, fielded questions and listened to uncomplimentary comments from the audience.

The discussion was more subdued and less confrontational than the early fallout a fortnight ago, but still produced a few heated moments.

Producer Richard Loring said it was difficult to blame racism for Lebo M's seating. Loring, a fellow nominee, said he was also seated at the back. He also asked why Lebo M had not acknowledged his Lion King co-producer Pieter Toerien at the awards.

Lebo M responded furiously: "I take serious offence to distortions surrounding the fact that I did not acknowledge Pieter Toerien, my business partner, who in fact was not at the awards. It is made to look like an issue. Let me make it clear, Pieter and I are business partners.

"Sometimes in television interviews we acknowledge each other, sometimes we don't.

"What I read from those who commented on the incident is that I needed to have acknowledged my white boss. He is not my boss, but a business partner.

"The issue of the seat must be made clear. I was not late and I sat where the organisers of the awards said I should sit, which was in fact the last row right at the back."

Khumalo had to calm him down repeatedly during his response.

Purkey took exception to lumping his institution with other theatres that had not transformed their operations.

He said most of the production staff at the theatre were black, as were the actors.

'The Market Theatre cannot and should not solve the whole sector's problems when it comes to transformation," he said.

Ndlovu called for the construction of community township theatres as a way of bringing back the vibrancy of the old days.

Van Graan bemoaned the defensiveness of those who were accused of inadequate transformation, but also hit out at those black theatre managers who failed to run their institutions properly once appointed to positions of authority.

"These theatres run by black managers often become scenes of obscene power struggles and opportunism. Transformation should not just concentrate on demographics, but should aim at structural transformation," he said.

Molepo drew a distinction between what he called uninstitutionalised theatre, institutionalised theatre and the privately owned and run theatres.