Crucial issues in black theatre

Edward Tsumele

Edward Tsumele

The recent Theatre and Dance Indaba at Museum Africa in Newtown, Johannesburg, closely scrutinised various sectors of the theatre arts.

In the 70s and 80s the theatre was vibrant in the townships and being used to mobilise the oppressed.

But democracy has seen the artistic energy disappear, with township halls once used to politicise people now housing charismatic churches. Artists are disillusioned and have lost their fighting spirit.

So, what went wrong?

The various sectors believed that they had transformed long before 1994 but the reality is that crucial areas theatre and dance remain in a coma.

Granted, opportunities were created for promising and connected actors and dancers and, to some extent, scriptwriters.

The Market Theatre, through its training arm the Market Theatre Laboratory, has done spectacular work. Many actors, lighting experts and stage artists were trained here.

Dance companies such as Moving into Dance and the Dance Factory also worked wonders to train black dancers and choreographers.

But training actors, technicians, choreographers and dancers, without opening opportunities is of no use to them.

Many who are trying to break into this area are frustrated and accuse those who are already there of not helping them.

They want to know why there is such an insignificant number of young black directors, literary coaches and producers at mainstream, public-funded theatres such as the Market, Windybrow, State, Pacofs and Playhouse.

The indaba's answers to these important questions were muffled and wishy-washy and were avoided by the people who should be addressing the issue.

Last year Sibongile Khumalo could not, owing to time constraints, answer novelist and playwright Martin Koboekae's burning question. This year he persisted.

"Why don't black directors have shows at the Market and whenever we enquire we are told to co-produce, that we must share the costs with the theatre, but well-connected white directors are given opportunities?"

The Market's artistic director, Malcolm Purkey, said it gave opportunities to many black directors but needed support from other theatres. He said there was more pressure on the Market.

"If other theatres reached 45000 people a year, as the Market does, we would not be in this situation," Purkey said.

Another burning issue was the government's failure to grant tax concessions to companies that sponsor the arts.

Tale Motsepe of the Arts and Culture Department said: "As far as I know, no such request has been made to our office - or might have been made to the wrong office."

Business and Arts South Africa's Tsholo Tshepe said her organisation was preparing a presentation for the Treasury about tax concessions.

"We want to state unequivocally that the department is unwavering in its commitment to preserve and promote South African art, culture and heritage," Tshepe said.

"That is why we continue providing material resources and moral support for artistic initiatives and other efforts."

Arts and Culture Department spokesman Sandile Memela said: "Artists must put their house in order. They expect the department to mother them. They must assume responsibility for making things happen.

"It is not the department's responsibility to organise in a way that will significantly transform the sector.

"This is a democracy and the department cannot dictate and impose its will without consultation and partnerships."

Was the indaba just another talk shop?

"No. There will be results," said South African Theatre Initiative executive secretary Mpho Molepo.