The Soweto Theater opened May 25 with a production of “The Suitcase,”… (Stephane de Sakutin / AFP/Getty…)
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — During South Africa's apartheid era, the biggest problem facing any theater director working in a black township (apart from avoiding arrest over a play's political content) was finding a stage.
The sprawling Johannesburg township of Soweto had few community amenities, so theater groups staged plays anywhere they could, in shabby community centers or church halls.
Soweto, home to more than 1 million people, has changed dramatically since the liberation struggle that made it famous. It has a growing tourist industry as visitors seek out landmarks of the movement. Its burgeoning middle class flocks to the huge Maponya shopping mall, with its designer shops and multiplex cinema. It has its own wine festival, motor exhibition, fashion show and even an equestrian center.
But it has taken 18 years since the end of white minority rule for Soweto to get its own professional theater, the first in any South African township. The Soweto Theater opened May 25 with a production of "The Suitcase," adapted by South African director James Ngcobo.
"It's a huge milestone," said Steven Sack, director of arts, culture and dance for the city of Johannesburg, who helped develop the theater. "Soweto has seen enormous progress and economic growth.... This is part of upgrading the infrastructure, libraries, houses, shopping centers. The theater is part of the place-making and neighborhood-making of Soweto."
The Soweto Theater is shaped like a set of three colorful building blocks in red, blue and yellow, each housing a theater, with 420, 180 and 90 seats. It's near Jabulani Stadium, where many significant political meetings took place, including the reading of a letter from the jailed Nelson Mandela in 1985 by his daughter, Zindzi, rejecting an offer of freedom in return for renouncing violent struggle.
The play "The Suitcase" is based on a 1955 short story by Eskia Mphahlele, a South African writer who died in 2008 at age 88. The work is about a black rural couple, Timi and Namhla, who come to the city full of hope for a better life. It ends tragically after Timi is stopped by a white policeman and questioned about a suitcase he stole from a bus. Although not overtly political, it underscores the struggles of life for black South Africans, who were often stopped, interrogated, suspected.
Timi insists the suitcase and its contents are his. But opening it reveals the body of a baby inside.
Sack, part of a group of white university students who founded the Junction Avenue Theater Company in 1976, said theater was an important part of the struggle against apartheid. That was one reason why police kept a close eye on actors and directors who dared to take part in mixed-race performances.
The government shut down theaters where black and white actors shared the stage, and closed down many black drama companies by harassing or arresting performers and writers or by banning productions seen as too inflammatory.
Fringe theater groups nonetheless sprang up to challenge apartheid. Black artists such as Gibson Kente wrote plays about the daily struggle of township life. Renowned liberal white playwright Athol Fugard also challenged white minority rule with his works, many of which could be staged only outside South Africa.
"You had very vibrant anti-apartheid theater from the late 1970s into the 1980s," said Sack, who helped set up an arts school in Soweto in the 1980s called the Funda Center, which became a major theater venue in Soweto at the time. "The big challenge, living under apartheid, was trying not to be overwhelmed by the day-to-day existence of apartheid and, on the other hand, not to end up in jail, because there was obviously a fair bit of censorship and observation by the security police."
While the fall of apartheid helped assure political freedom for people such as Ngcobo, the director of "The Suitcase" said there are signs on occasions of a new orthodoxy that can stifle creativity. Criticism can come for staging Shakespeare's plays, or for casting a white male in the role of a black woman, or for staging a play in Lesotho where the main character is listening to Mozart.
Ngcobo feels that for many years, South African theater was crippled by the pressure to find political meaning in the aftermath of apartheid.
"I feel as if we are stuck in our own narrative in the arts here," he said. "Sometimes you don't have to put something onstage because it has meaning. You put something onstage because it has heart and you can't say what the writer was thinking about, what it's about."
Ngcobo staged James Baldwin's play "The Amen Corner," about the pastor of a Harlem corner church, at Johannesburg's Market Theater. "People came in droves. It was the first time James Baldwin was done here." He has put on plays from Nigeria and Lesotho, and 13th century works from Mali.
"I just get very angry when people put a sell-by date on narrative," said Ngcobo. "People say, why do we do all these old plays? I am a Shakespeare freak. Words never get old."
Ngcobo said the community had already embraced the Soweto Theater; families turn up to see shows with pajama-clad children in tow, and young people crowd the theater bar.
Some have raised questions about whether the facility will become a financial drain or an outlet for the ruling party's political meetings.
Sack acknowledges the doubts on whether people from the growing number of mixed-race affluent northern suburbs will make the journey to Soweto to see theater performances, but he said the plan was to foster talent in Soweto, building on the many cultural, musical, dance and drama groups in the area.
"Our intention is to build an audience in Soweto," he said. "We really want to see Sowetans coming to the theater."