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Traveling In Style : CORRESPONDENTS' CHOICE : STREET SCENES

March 01, 1992|Scott \f7 Kraft, Johannesburg bureau | Six Times correspondents from around the world offer brief portraits of fascinating streets in cities they have covered.

WOLHUTER STREET, Johannesburg

Hardly anyone knows the name of this avenue, which is closed to traffic and hidden amid warehouses on the ragged western edge of downtown Johannesburg. The map makers call it Wolhuter Street, but to everyone else it is simply "the market." Dotted with small, leafy trees and paved with brown brick, Wolhuter Street is just 100 yards long--but it is the hub of cultural activism in South Africa, full of theaters and galleries and pubs shared by blacks and whites alike.

Halfway along the street, a graceful building that was once the city's bustling produce market now houses the Market Theater, Upstairs at the Market and the Laager Theater, three of South Africa's most prestigious theatrical venues. The complex opened a few days after the 1976 Soweto student uprising, and for 15 years it has dodged and defied the country's censors, carving out an apartheid-free zone right under the white government's nose. It is here that Mbongeni Ngema formed Committed Artists and opened the energetic, Broadway-bound musicals "Sarafina!" and "Township Fever." It is here, too, that Athol Fugard's searingly insightful plays, from "Master Harold and the Boys" to "My Children, My Africa," have been staged.

Across the street, strollers can buy a meat pie at the Periwinkle Cafe, browse among the antiques at Victor Victoria or pick up a 50-pound bag of "lawn dressing" at the flower shop. On Saturdays, a flea market of African kitsch takes over the parking lot half a block away. Elsewhere on the street, a jazz club called Kippie's keeps one of the city's most vital musical traditions alive.

A California-style crowd (equal parts suits and ties, blue jeans and T-shirts) is on view at Harridans, a restaurant that shares the Market Theater roof and is a favorite of once-exiled leaders of the African National Congress. (The tomato tart is quite nice.) A few weeks ago, a choir of 40 black youths suddenly appeared on the street outside Harridans, singing township songs. "Are they part of one of the shows?" I asked. The restaurant owner shook her head. "No," she said, "they just sing."

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