New era in Soweto arts

Edward Tsumele

Edward Tsumele

Sowetans last week celebrated the beginning of the construction of a state-of-the-art theatre complex in Jabulani.

Among those who graced the historical occasion were Minister of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan, Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo, playwrights Lebo M, Bongani Linda, Welcome Msomi; poet Kgafela oa Magogodi and Market Theatre acting chief executive Malcolm Purkey.

The construction has raised both hope and questions from the arts community, particularly because of the history of the township's arts and the role of artists in the struggle. The arts, especially theatre, was used as a weapon to fight the struggle against racial oppression during apartheid.

Notably, Gibson Kente, Matsemela Manaka and Sam Mhangwani, played an important role in the genesis of what became known as township theatre. Kente and Manaka are now dead and Mhangwani is now promoting jazz.

However, it was quite noticeable and disturbingly so, that prominent voices in the arts, who were either born in Soweto and still have a sentimental connection to the township, or are still active in community theatre, were conspicuous by their absence.

Questions were also hanging in the air as to what type of programming will form the content at the three theatres.

For example, are we going to see the replication of the content of the Market Theatre from a programming point of view and if so, would this mean competition for audiences between the two institutions?

This question is relevant, considering the fact that Purkey, who is also the artistic director of the theatre in charge of content, was invited to the turning of the sod.

Or, are we going to see the kind of content that prevails at the Pro Musica Theatre in Roodepoort on the West Rand? These are relevant questions because the initial running of the theatre has been given to the Pro Musica Theatre.

Pro Musica's programming is more classical music than contemporary theatre.

The absence at the event of most artists born in the township also raised eyebrows.

For example, where was singer Sibongile Khumalo, pioneering dancer Nomsa Manaka, playwrights Julian Seleke-Mokoto and Peter Ngwenya?

Seleke-Mokoto, Ngwenya and others have for many years complained about the lack of performance space in the townships, which forced them to perform at badly-equipped, derelict community halls with no theatre lighting or decent stages.

They also complained incessantly about being marginalised by the mainstream theatres.

One would have expected to see many a township thespian at the sod turning, which marked another chapter in the revival of the arts in general and theatre in particular in Soweto.

But those who attended the ceremony were hopeful that this was the best opportunity for theatre to once again thrive in this township.

They all agreed that a structure of this kind was long overdue due to fierce competition for performance space. For example, if one's play is not performed at the Joburg Theatre, Old Mutual Theatre on the Square, Market Theatre or the State Theatre, one is doomed.

There was also a wait-and-see attitude among some artists.

Magogodi noted: "Even though one does not want to be negative, it is quite instructive that the authorities seem not to realise that since the advent of Gibson Kente, Lebo M and others, there are now new voices in theatre who are young and are doing well.

"One also hopes that the team that will be appointed to run this theatre will be a group of people who have skills in arts administration and who are not actively aligned to political parties."

There was also a lot of enthusiasm and hope among many in the audience.

Jordan said: "This theatre building in Soweto is long, long overdue.

"It is indeed unfortunate that many people in the performing arts are unaware of the existence of a rich-theatre history and tradition in Soweto.

"The absence of a physical building, housing a theatre, does not mean that there was no theatre among Sowetans."

Masondo said the theatre complex, which will have three performance venues, with respective capacities that accommodate 410, 180 and 90 people respectively, and will start construction in March this year, will be completed in April 2010. It will cost R110 million.

Masondo said: "The passion for theatre is growing fairly rapidly among all sectors of the South African population.

Despite this growth we have noted that, for many, theatre continues to be perceived by some as something reserved for the elite."

In the past, theatre in Soweto was vibrant, venues were always full and the plays were in touch with people's feelings. Venues such as Eyethu, now derelict, were always full. Ironically the Jabulani Amphitheatre which hosted Welcome Msomi's Umabatha in 1972 is now used for maskandi performances and political rallies.

But will this theatre attract audiences once it is opened? Content will definitely play a role in answering this big question.

"The suitable content should be the one which connects the past (the Gibson Kente type of theatre) to the present, and should project the future," argues Sandile Memela, the spokesman for the ministry of arts and culture, speaking in his personal capacity.