Crossing boundaries: the genesis of the township plays.
To engage the Post's readers with a subject they obviously knew nothing about, the writer simply and effectively dramatized the stories of some of these men and women of New Brighton, in particular, "Philip" and "Lena." For men like Philip, learning to read and write meant keeping out of trouble, for instance by being able to read notices like "Europeans Only." It also meant some alleviation of the bewilderment and loneliness of urban life, for instance through enabling him to write letters home to his parents "in the kraal." For women like Lena, worried about having brought her children into "a world of suffering," learning to read enabled her to share their "budding learning," as well as to "buy an occasional tin of something special because she can follow the directions on the side."
The author of this small attempt to convey something of the lives and everyday experiences of his fellow South Africans across the boundaries of race, class, and gender was the twenty-two-year-old Athol Fugard. It sounds patronizing today, but the article demonstrates how, from his earliest published writings, Fugard was concerned to acknowledge the lives, indeed the very existence, of those of his compatriots excluded in one way or another from the centers of privilege and power in his society.
Although this concern led him to go on and testify to the experiences of lost and discarded whites from Hester and Johnny (in Hello and Goodbye) to Gideon Le Roux (in Playland), it has also involved "bearing witness" to the experiences of black people, from the correspondence student Willie Seopelo (in No-Good Friday) to the rural migrant Sizwe dictating a letter home (in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead), to--how prophetic the name of her New Brighton predecessor--the desperate Lena (in Boesman and Lena), stripped even of the consolations of motherhood and belonging in the township.
As I have suggested elsewhere ("Resituating"), the idea of "bearing witness," which Fugard has used to describe his motivation since 1968, and which has subsequently been echoed by many critics (myself included) to legitimate his work, should not be accepted without question. Certainly it seems an appropriate idea to invoke as a humanist version of the familiar Christian notion of offering oneself as testimony to the truth of what has been seen or experienced in extreme situations. The writer "as witness" is a type who "increasingly appears in the annals of twentieth-century literature," representing the writer's "solidarity with the doomed, the deprived, the victimized, the under-privileged" (Heaney xvi). But who really should bear witness in situations of degradation, suffering, even death? Shouldn't the victims speak for themselves? And if they cannot, who can legitimately speak for them? In other words, whose voices are heard, whose have been silenced? And how does the passage of time change the answers to these questions?
The passage of time in South Africa since Fugard first began his career has now at last produced the sound of many voices, previously silenced, belittled, or degraded, demanding to be heard, as ANC exile Barbara Masekela remarked in a historic speech delivered in Grahamstown shortly after her return to the country in 1990. Indeed, a battle is going on for space at the center of a culture for so long dominated by the white minority. Masekela attacked English speakers for having been "the most exclusive and resistant to genuine national influences," and the associated "cultural elite, those who work in financed cultural institutions, who have fax machines, telephones for instant interviews and time and resources to create," for enjoying "a disproportionate access to national and international media," where "their voice is often assumed to be our voice, simply because it is the only one anyone has heard."
This attack comes from a perspective itself derived from European cultural criticism and already known through the work of a small, elite group of predominantly white, English-speaking academics. But its value is that it reminds us of the urgent need to attend to what we have not yet heard, to the voice of the "other." This involves--not silencing those to whom we have already attended, who have spoken, for that would be replacing one monolithic culture with another--but reviewing our perspectives so as to admit the voices of the silenced. Much important work has been done (mainly by the aforementioned white academics) to recover the forgotten or ignored cultural production of South Africans, especially urban black South Africans.(1) But this has also led to a distortion of the contribution of Fugard, and especially to a downgrading of his enormously influential collaborative work with black township performers, whose most significant stimulus in the theatre he has always acknowledged.
What I would like to do here, then, is offer a brief account of his collaborative ventures, including some hitherto obscure or unpublished testimony from their point of view. I believe this to be the most important aspect of his work in the changing situation in South Africa now, because it shows how he found the voice of the voiceless, challenging "white complacency and its conspiracy of silence" (Notebooks 142) as he put it when, at the key moment of the Serpent Players' production of The Coat in 1966, he effectively provided a medium for their testimony, thereby helping many others find an alternative to the dominant, Western, conventional hierarchy of author-text-production.
As Mongane Wally Serote has pointed out, theatre is one of the art forms which have shown the greatest potential for development in the years of most intense struggle in South Africa, in particular the form of theatre introduced by the Serpent Players, through The Coat, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, and The Island (45). Serote mistakenly included The Blood Knot in this group, but even that play, developed as a two-hander by Fugard for himself and Zakes Mokae in Johannesburg in 1961, reflects a more transgressive urge than has generally been admitted--it was, after all, The Blood Knot which first proposed a kind of theatre involving performers crossing the racial divide to fulfill their given roles as characters whose destinies are intimately, indissolubly linked. Its successful local production involved Fugard and Mokae in repeatedly breaking the law to live, travel, and perform together (Richards), challenging the status quo by showing the fundamental conflict between a free theatre and apartheid. Moreover, following the success of The Blood Knot in the Rehearsal Room at Dorkay House, Union Artists sponsored a series of important productions of modern plays with black casts before multiracial audiences, including an extraordinary Waiting for Godot directed by Fugard with Cornelius Mabaso and David Phetoe, which Fugard thought more important in its effect even than the achievement of The Blood Knot (Notebooks 65).
But Fugard's collaborative work across the deep divisions of South African society began before The Blood Knot, with the first of his "township" plays, No-Good Friday. What I am calling the township plays have their common inspiration in the everyday life of urban black people, and were created and performed in increasingly close partnership with their black amateur casts--there is only one white role, and that is a small one, in the first play. Set out in the order of their initial production, these plays fall naturally into two groups, representing two distinct phases in Fugard's involvement across racial boundaries: the "Sophiatown" plays, No-Good Friday (1958) and Nogogo (1959), first performed in the Bantu Men's Social Centre, Johannesburg, by members of the so-called African Theatre Workshop that Athol and Sheila Fugard had organized in the vast, multiracial ghetto; and the "New Brighton" plays, including The Coat, The Last Bus (1969) and Friday's Bread on Monday (1970), improvised by the Serpent Players of New Brighton, followed by Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (1972) and its companion piece, The Island (1973), both first performed by their co-creators and well-known Serpent Players, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, in Brian Astbury's Space Theatre, Cape Town.
The Sophiatown phase lasted two years (1957-1959), and was a limited exercise in collaborative theatre, brought to an end as much by the enforced removal of that city-within-a-city as by the departure or exile abroad of its main participants, including the Fugards. The New Brighton phase extended over a decade (1963-1973), and involved, to begin with, a group of amateurs from the township working on classic Western drama from Antigone to The Caucasian Chalk Circle under Fugard's informed and expert eye. It was succeeded by more experimental playmaking using material drawn from their own lives as pressures upon the group increased under the post-Sharpeville clampdown in the Eastern Cape; and, finally, the joint creation by Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona of drama of an unprecedented intensity and impact, in Sizwe Bansi and The Island. Fugard's name is commonly attached to all the township plays, although the improvisations with Serpent Players are usually described as such, and the original title pages of the last two describe them as "devised by" their three co-creators, who also share the rights and royalties. There is an important sense in which all these plays belong less to Fugard than to the black performers whose lives they draw on, and who first helped create them, in rough or makeshift, often appalling, conditions. His other work, from The Blood Knot to Playland, is obviously more his own in theme and approach, even when he has cast black actors from the townships in their first production.
It would be wrong to suggest too hard and fast a division here, since there are obvious shared interests, for example in questions of individual freedom and identity. But Fugard himself distinguishes "two radically opposed methods" he has used: the "orthodox" writing of a play in private over a long period, on the one hand; and, on the other, going into a rehearsal room with a "loose mandate (an image, or sometimes more than that)" to evolve "a text, or an experience" through work with the actors ("Interview" Momentum 22). The method of the recent, post-township plays, as John Kani says, goes "against" his own "character," thereby offering a different challenge from earlier on, when what was more important was the playwright's recognition of the black performer's "need to voice what was grinding my soul" ("Post-Apartheid").
This need for articulation, for space for black people to be heard, had been recognized by other white liberals during the slow but remorseless silencing of their voices after the 1948 elections. Benjamin Pogrund, for example, Fugard's journalist friend, urged the aspiring playwright to come to Sophiatown in 1958--"approaching the sentence of death imposed by Nationalist apartheid, but still raucously alive and like nothing else in South Africa . . . your writing needs it," he said (37). Pogrund had already introduced Fugard to Sheila Meiring, the young drama student who encouraged him to leave journalism and become involved in the theatre, an involvement which led to the writing of two short plays, including The Cell (1956), based on the true story of a black woman unable to make the police who arrest her understand that she is about to give birth, and who becomes deranged after having her baby in prison. Fugard's growing interest in communicating the lives and sufferings of black South Africans coincided with the development of his interest in the theatre; and he was soon proclaiming that the "most stimulating and promising field for a young playwright in South Africa" lay in the world of the black townships, where there were untrained performers capable of "achieving an authenticity and vitality never before seen on the South African stage" (Anon. "Athol Plans")--a prophetic view greeted with scepticism then and later.
Yet, as the impact of the township plays and their black casts at home and abroad has shown, Fugard was right. Their impact has varied, according to the abilities and experiences of those involved, the nature and extent of their collaboration, and its shifting relationship with the changing history of the country. In the two Sophiatown plays, the brash but vital inner-city mix of jazz and booze, humor, poverty, and religion which characterized the multi-tribal, pre-apartheid township can be felt even within these early plays' limited, naturalistic scope. And as a series of moderately successful revivals since 1974 has proved, they continue to exert a certain force. But by then, the narrower, more sterile experience of the postwar "model" apartheid township New Brighton, set up on the outskirts of the Port Elizabeth industrial complex for which its labor was required, and inhabited by a single tribe, the Xhosa, had--paradoxically--provided the setting for the freer, more urgent and creative kind of collaborative theatre represented by Sizwe Bansi and The Island. For Fugard this development was in part the result of the influence of the European avant-garde, especially of the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski; but for John Kani and Winston Ntshona it had more to do with the surviving influence of indigenous African traditions of storytelling and response, revealed in plays like Witness Thamsanga's Buzani ku Bawo ("Ask Father"), a popular Xhosa play in which they took part under the direction of their history master at Newell High School, New Brighton.(2)
The resulting synthesis of indigenous and Western traditions had a radical impact upon prevailing assumptions about the nature of theatre in South Africa, and its role in a situation of oppression. The achievement of the New Brighton plays can lead to an underestimation of the earlier work, written by an apprentice playwright engaged in his first encounters in the townships. The Sophiatown plays nevertheless reflected the aspirations, violence, and vitality of urban black people, offering a window into the world of the correspondence student, she-been queen, tsotsi (gangster), and rural migrant, for predominantly white, liberal audiences. They may now also be seen to have helped to legitimate everyday urban black experience--the experience of the majority of South Africans--as a subject, for blacks as well as whites.
Fugard's understanding of that experience was profoundly affected by the only job the hopeful young playwright could find at first in Johannesburg in 1958--as clerk in a "Native Commissioner's Court," where pass-law offenders were tried and jailed every few minutes. Few white South Africans knew, or cared to know, what went on in such places. His sense of the evils of apartheid was deepened into a lasting pessimism. Yet at the same time Pogrund introduced him to a remarkably talented group of people in Sophiatown, including Lewis Nkosi, Bloke Modisane, Can Themba, Ken Gampu, and, most important of all, an untrained bit-part film actor, Zakes Mokae. Fugard cast Mokae as a township thug in No-Good Friday, and then wrote the role of Blackie, Queenie's crippled and violent hanger-on in Nongogo, especially for him, and this, Fugard said, "was the start of one of the really rich working relationships of my life" (Benson "Keeping" 78). Fugard and Mokae actually met through the nonracial artists' equity association, the Union of South African Artists--or Union Artists, as it became when it acquired Dorkay House, the ex-clothing factory where township talent was presented before mainly white audiences in Johannesburg during the late 1950s. Johannesburg-born and bred, Mokae had attended St. Peter's Anglican school in Rosettenville, where he came to know the Superintendent, Father Trevor Huddleston, on whom Father Higgins in No-Good Friday was modeled, and who had formed a jazz band to which Mokae, an accomplished tenor saxophonist, belonged as a founder member (Hugh Masekela was another). The success of a farewell concert for the much-loved missionary ("Makhilipele," undaunted leader, they called him), in the Bantu Men's Social Centre in 1954, had stimulated the growing interest among white entrepreneurs in township culture, and shortly after the appearance of Fugard's township plays, Union Artists' enormously successful township opera King Kong led to a series of glossily packaged South African musicals such as Ipi Tombi touring abroad under white management.
Unlike township plays such as The Island, whose appearance in London coincided with Ipi Tombi while drawing a fraction of its audience, these works offer a thoroughly compromised version of township voices. Fugard's workshops have been seen as part of a larger movement of white entrepreneurs exploiting black performers, but not only is that a very partial version of the truth, it fails to account for the fact that the result of his collaborations was theatre the South African authorities tried to stop, whereas they have always supported the packaged presentations of black singers and dancers which continue to appear in the West End or on Broadway--although to some extent nowadays displaced by musicals of more radical intent, if not effect, such as Mbongeni Ngema's Sarafina! (1987).
In retrospect, some of those involved in the Sophiatown plays have been critical of Fugard's position at the time. Bloke Modisane, for example, whose anguished autobiography Blame Me on History (1963) should be read alongside Huddleston's account of Sophiatown, and who was approached (in August 1958) by the Fugards "with a bottle of brandy" and a request to play Shark, the leading gangster in No-Good Friday. Modisane agreed, because "I had acting pretensions, probably as a result of seeing too many Hollywood films," but also through reading Stanislavsky. He approached the role by thinking about wartime brainwashing, "and the result was a nasty insidious terror, almost always implied, which at times had its effect on the other actors on stage."
We played before such small audiences it was discouraging, and it seemed that all the effort, the money, the sheer physical hard work Athol Fugard--without any backing, even from the Union of Southern African Artists which only invested in certainties at the box-office--had put into it would have been in vain. The play was given two nights in a small hall in Johannesburg--the first before an all-white audience--and attracted the interest of a white impresario who booked the play for four nights in the white Brian Brooke Theatre; but this booking almost destroyed the play itself because Athol Fugard, the playwright and white man who plays the priest . . . was not allowed on the same stage with the black actors, and Athol Fugard had accepted the principle without consulting the actors.
The actors confronted Athol with this betrayal, protesting that there was an agreement not to pander to the bigotry of white South Africa; the actors refused to perform without him in the cast, but he argued that it was a big break for the play, and we became sentimental and relented because it seemed to be his whole life. (289-91)
And so Lewis Nkosi was recruited to play the white priest, his face whitened-up. Nkosi himself later passed over the grotesque absurdity of his role, preferring to criticize the play's political naivete, while praising Fugard's approach, "partly to make the actors improvise and then later to improve on their lines, or the other way around: to write the draft scenes and try them out with the actors, changing the material when necessary to fit a new situation. At the time we were all under the influence of the 'method' of Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio in New York" (Nkosi 3).
As Fanon long ago observed, the colonial world is a world divided, a world cut in two, and nowhere more obviously than in South Africa (29). For Fugard, the task has been to cross the divide, a move which, like all serious transgression, involves difficulty, even danger, producing fear and guilt on one side, but also anger and resentment on the other. Modisane's view of the Sophiatown collaboration came to be echoed in some of the remarks about the New Brighton work made later by Kani and Ntshona, upset at the fact that
In a company of four or five black men and one white man, working harmoniously on an equal basis . . . the outside onlooker immediately identifies the white man with the leadership of the group, irrespective of the part of honesty of the white man in the company. So black people will always be the rough material but not the finished product. . . . So people seeing this white man in the company of Serpent Phyers immediately assumed that he was the director of the group, the manager of the group, the founder of the group, which is not so. ("Art and Africans" 1413)
In earlier interviews Fugard's initiative, direction, and control are simply accepted: "You see, Athol taught us that we need our art, not propaganda," as Kani summed up in 1974. "Athol reminds us that the story is enough and the message will take care of itself" (Kani and Ntshona "Separate Fables"). But the near-total hegemony of the white minority created by apartheid has meant that white liberals and other dissidents such as Fugard are part of the structures of domination they oppose, although a distinction must be made between their various forms of protest, and the willing submission to the system of most whites over the years. It is understandable that they should be criticized.
Fugard's own view of the New Brighton phase has generally been positive, although immediately afterward he felt his energies had been "hijacked" (Notebooks 222), and he retreated to the privacy of writing plays like Dimetos (1975), an uncertain study of the potential for corruption of the isolated artist. It was in fact from this kind of privacy, after his return home from the London production of The Blood Knot in 1963, that he was first drawn into collaborative work by a New Brighton visitor, Norman Ntshinga, who had heard about the Rehearsal Room in Johannesburg (and perhaps seen his black Godot, as well as The Blood Knot, both of which were performed on tour in New Brighton during the preceding twelve months). It was "the old, old request," Fugard confided to his notebook. "Actually it is hunger. A desperate hunger to do something that would make the hell of their daily existence meaningful." Ntshinga's presence made the white playwright realize that he had lost touch with the realities of his country; he felt "bitterly guilty," and thought his work (currently on People Are Living There) tainted with "self-indulgence" (81). The New Brighton men--Ntshinga's next visit brought George Mnci, Mulligan Mbiqwana, Simon Hanabe, and Michael Ngxokolo--wanted to create a local branch of Union Artists, and it was their persistence which finally persuaded Fugard to get involved. He found the drive and enthusiasm of the group as it developed--school teachers, a bus driver, a clerk, and women domestics by day, actors by night--quite "incredible"; they were more "responsible" than the Rehearsal Room group, whose initiative had been "sapped away" by the "patronage and 'help' of well-meaning whites" (96).
Within two months the New Brighton group--who named themselves Serpent Players after their first performing space, the old Port Elizabeth snake pit--had held their first reading under Fugard's direction of what was to become a wildly popular township version of Machiavelli's Mandragola, The Cure, which played to one of the first multiracial audiences in Port Elizabeth. Improvisation was the key to Serpent Players' practice; their aim at first simply to entertain. They went on to produce cheaply mounted township versions of classic European drama in venues such as St. Stephen's Hall, without adequate lighting, seats, props, or backstage facilities, rehearsing beforehand in places which allowed them to escape apartheid restrictions--such as an about-to-be-demolished "coloured" school. From the start, the Players (including Fugard), their relatives, and friends came under surveillance, and in December 1964, days before the opening of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Azdak (Welcome Duru), a schoolteacher, was "savagely assaulted by the police in his home (one a.m.) in front of his family, then dragged away to jail crying for mercy" (Notebooks 120). Fugard took over, and the performance proceeded. But within months three more members were arrested: Simon Hanabe, Sipho "Sharkie" Mguqulwa, and Norman Ntshinga--whose role as Haemon had to be taken over by newcomer John Kani.
The New Brighton group did not collapse. Instead, a new phase of playmaking, without texts or identifiable authors, began. Brecht's Messingkauf Dialogues provided particular inspiration. But it was the events of the time, as they impinged upon the Players, which had most effect. A good indication of their motives is provided by a series of reports written as an exercise on 29 March 1965,(3) in which the remaining Players explained how they had begun by wanting to "understand drama," to "learn how to act" and "appreciate the work of playwrights all over the world," as well as to "get an opportunity of putting across certain truths to my people," as Ngxokolo put it, "because I feel that I have something to say and theatre is an outlet or a medium of self-expression." The Players offered the highest praise for Fugard, whose "dedication and encouragement" had gained their "confidence and respect." Fugard kept the arrested Players informed of the group's progress, and in one reply (datable from the prison censor's signature) Ntshinga reported that he was passing the playwright's letters to the others, "and we are all pleased to learn that the Serpent Players is doing well and striving to uphold the standard we've already set." Ten days later, however, Ntshinga's dream of becoming an actor through his performances in The Cure, Woyzeck, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle was "shattered."
The day you started rehearsing Antigone I was 19 [in] a cell at Walmer [Port Elizabeth]. I did not worry much then as I knew that for a few meetings you would be doing nothing but reading and I hoped that I would be released in time to catch up. . . . I never knew what solitary confinement can do. . . . Any person who has gone through it can assure himself that there is nothing on earth that has still to be done he need dread. But all that is over now. I'm trying to explain that of all the things I'm missing there is nothing I miss like my family and Drama. (Fugard Collection 1965)
When Fugard attended the trials in Cradock, where he acted as "witness in mitigation" for Ntshinga (without effect), he took with him the man's wife Mabel Magada, a well-known blues singer who had played the leading role in Woyzeck. She was recognized by a fifty-eight-year-old man from New Brighton who had just been sentenced to three years on Robben Island for--like the others--merely belonging to the banned ANC. The man took off his coat and gave it to her, saying, "Go to my home. Give this to my wife. Tell her to use it" (Kani, personal interview).
Ntshinga's sentence was five years (of which he served two), basically, as Fugard observed, for being black (Notebooks 126). He has never fully recovered. The shock of all this went deep. For Fugard, the issue became how to reach the "other man" (127); for the Players, how to create a play directly out of their experiences.
It was a year before the result became visible, in The Coat, "An Acting Exercise" which was presented to its first audience, a white Port Elizabeth "theatre appreciation" group who, having asked to see a sample of their work, were expecting a comedy, Wole Soyinka's Brother Jero. But since the Native Commissioner would permit performance in a "white area" only on condition the black performers did not use the toilets, and returned to the township after the show, the Players (after bitter debate) decided to do a reading of The Coat instead, using pseudonyms from their earlier roles to avoid trouble with the police, and a Brechtian actor-presenter who encouraged their white audience to think about, not merely sympathize with, what they were witnessing. Fugard's aim was to "shatter white complacency and its conspiracy of silence"; for the group, going ahead was an act of "solidarity," a testimony to their work together over the years. The collaborative procedure, with Fugard as "scribe" and provocateur, and the performers drawing on their knowledge of New Brighton, was fully vindicated by the result, which left their audience of one hundred and fifty frozen in "horror and fascination" (Notebooks 142-43) at being taken out of their safe white world into township oppression. As "Lavrenti" (Mulligan Mbikwane) announces in the opening address: 'We want to use the theatre. For what? . . . Some of us say to understand the world we live in, but we also boast a few idealists who think that Theatre might have something to do with changing it (Township Plays 123).
Six months later, the day after the BBC broadcast The Blood Knot, Fugard's passport was withdrawn. He continued his work--in private, on Boesman and Lena, testifying to the lives of two "coloured" outcasts; and in collaboration, with the Players, alternating productions of European classics with other improvisations on township issues, in which another new member had begun to show promise--Winston Ntshona, brought in by school friend Kani. John Bonisile Kani was born on 30 August 1943 in a two-room house in Port Elizabeth. The son of a policeman, he was brought up with five brothers and four sisters. Winston Zola Ntshona was born on 6 October 1941 in King William's Town in the Ciskei region, but lived for four years with an uncle in a Johannesburg township while his mother, two brothers, and a younger sister survived in a single room near Port Elizabeth, before they all moved into one of the larger New Brighton township houses. After leaving Newell High School, Ntshona was a factory janitor for eight years, his earlier family history leading to problems with the pass laws which he was to recall for his role as Sizwe Bansi. He was a laboratory assistant when Kani brought him in, Kani too having begun as a factory janitor at the Ford car plant, before going on the engine-assembly line--an experience embodied in his opening monologue as Styles in Sizwe Bansi. After being fired, Kani became a welfare assistant with the Bantu Administration in New Brighton. The effect of their arrival upon the depleted Players was soon apparent. But it was not until 1972 (by which time Fugard's passport had been returned) that the two performed together in a major production, Camus' The Just, retitled The Terrorists, at the Space Theatre Club--a production which led to their decision to give up their jobs and become full-time performers in a country which did not officially recognize black actors or their theatre (Astbury n.p.).
Within weeks of that decision (which meant they had to be classified as Fugard's domestic servants in their pass-books) their joint commitment issued in the workshop production of Sizwe Bansi. Its first appearance before a multiracial audience at the Space was prevented by the police, so Astbury reopened the next night as a massively enlarged "club," effectively defying the authorities, who were nevertheless represented (as usual) by Special Branch observers. According to Kani, he, Fugard, and Ntshona had been looking for a two-hander drawn from urban black experience; after toying with Soyinka's The Detainee, they found their "mandate" in a photo of a smiling black man who, they agreed, would only smile like that if his pass was in order (Kani, personal interview).
Acting as a means of survival was central to the brilliant combination of monologue, mime, improvisation, and remembered gesture which insured immediate local recognition for Sizwe Banzi (original spelling), and an invitation from the Royal Court in London before a written script had been put together. And while the three waited for permission to leave for London, they decided to apply the same workshop techniques to material accumulated (in Fugard's case, over some seven years) from their relatives (including Kani's elder brother, since shot at a funeral), friends, and former colleagues about life on Robben Island. The focus became a two-man version of Antigone arranged by Ntshinga and Sipho "Sharkey" Mguqulwa as prison entertainment; but they began with a simple exercise of exploring a diminishing space, which suddenly became infused with a specific but dangerous meaning: "To take the island and say something about it. We joined hands, closed the garage door and after two weeks we were on stage in Cape Town" (Kani, personal interview). The play was called Die Hodoshe Span, "Hodoshe's Work-Team," after a brutal warder's nickname (Xhosa for carrion-fly), but a usefully obscure title for the unscripted production, since it was illegal to make public information about prison conditions.
The rest of the story is well enough known--including the short imprisonment of Kani and Ntshona in the Transkei "homeland" for a performance of Sizwe Bansi there in 1976. The important point is that, unlike the earlier township plays, by mediating the black experience so much more closely, the New Brighton works offered explicit statements about the injustice of apartheid, as well as the opportunity, through their improvisational, storytelling structure, for comment by performers on personal history and current issues. But their lasting impact as well as their local influence--most new black drama bears their mark, as Kani has pointed out ("Combatant" 57-58)--demonstrates how they also transcend the limitations of immediacy, or agitprop, thereby becoming repeatable by performers unfamiliar with the township experiences they mediated. Thus playwright and performers, isolated by race and position within their fractured, semi-colonial society, have been led by their joint commitment to the potential of theatre, to become actors in the painful transformation of their country today.
1 See David Coplan, Temple Hauptfleisch and Ian Steadman, Robert Kavanagh, and Martin Orkin.
2 I am grateful to Nhlanhla Maake for advice about Xhosa theatre, and the translation of this title, given to me by John Kani.
3 The following excerpts are taken from unpublished manuscripts numbered 1338/25-30 in the Fugard Collection, National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa, whose kind permission to publish I would like here to acknowledge.
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|Title Annotation:||Athol Fugard Issue|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1993|
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