Yesterday we banged out another two-show day. Morning was Altrec Sport Centre in Alexandra, one of Johannesburg’s most famous townships.
Alex, as the locals call it, was established over a hundred years ago, and has been a focal point of race and class-based conflict at many times throughout its history. Mandela lived there for a period. In recent years, Alex has made international news as the origin point of a series of xenophobia-based attacks on individuals and businesses.
In response to the outbreak of xenophobic violence earlier this year, including the April murders of several foreign nationals living in Alex, a nation-wide campaign is underway to combat xenophobia. Signs calling on citizens to say no to xenophobia have been visible every hour since we landed in South Africa.
I asked Leigh Colombick, our Company Manager for this leg of the journey, about the signs. She described animosity, which she was not shy to characterize as outright racism, stemming from an influx of immigrant workers taking up traditionally lower-income jobs and establishing businesses in neighborhoods that had, until recently, a more homogenous ethnic and cultural make-up. That very situation should sound quite familiar to, say, Americans in the age of the Trump anti-immigration rally, or western Europeans who have seen several decades now of ugly reaction to immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East.
The Sport Centre is a lovely facility where local kids can play soccer, basketball, netball, and tennis. We performed in a large open room that I suppose, based on the tile floor, must be used ordinarily for non-athletic programming. Benita and I were able to scrape up one of our best altars yet by hauling in bricks from a pile outside.
Antigone played for 150 young people, nearly 40 of them flying in off the sporting fields once word got out that the show was underway.
In the evening, Phumi had a homecoming. We took the show to her old high school, St. Mary’s School For Girls. Sadly no dirt on her legacy of youthful misbehavior and adolescent antics: from what we can tell Phumi’s record there is clean.
The current students, meanwhile, had actually been reading Oedipus Rex, making them perhaps our most prepared audience yet. We packed one hundred of them onto risers and long wooden benches in their cozy drama room. Though I couldn’t always hear the show, I think my seat had a lot to argue for it: I was perched in a tree just outside the windows.
Today, despite the lack of performance, was equally packed. We had a morning rehearsal – our first since Nairobi – in a conference room on the third floor of the hotel. Mosher appeared in both his playwright and directors guises, giving line changes on the one hand and working to clarify the staging on the other.
The major note is that we’ve lost track of how violent the world of the play is. The story we’re telling takes place in a context of stunning brutality. Life is cheap. Physical security is nil. The Guard runs slowly to deliver the news of Polynices’ burial because he knows there’s a better than fifty percent chance these are the last steps he’ll ever take. Antigone, a princess, is bound and dragged before her uncle, then sentenced to die. The field outside the palace is littered with the bodies of dead soldiers, rotting in the sun, fed upon by dogs and birds.
Back in Nash we had gruesome war photos to lock us back into that reality, but it’s quite a challenge to keep the imagination focused on the road: while some days we perform in buildings and neighborhoods with tremendous personality, consonant with the play, other days we wake up in our clean, featureless hotel rooms and go to perform in pre-fab meeting rooms under fluorescent lights. Keeping one part of thought always on the violence outside the walls is a critical task.
But then of course my favorite moment of the rehearsal was Peter and Mark laughing and remembering “Wackiki Wabbit”, the old Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Following rehearsal, one group hops into Lunga’s car for a poke around the city. Most of the rest take the van to Lilliesleaf, the former farm property that secretly housed ANC leadership during Apartheid. The grounds now belong to the Lilliesleaf Museum. Some of the original buildings still stand, while many others have been reconstructed. We got to see, for instance, the room Mandela lived in while planning major operations for the ANC, during a critical time in its existence — the shift from passive to active resistance.
The whole company reconvened for a very special treat: lunch at Phumzile’s house. Phumi’s mother, Dora Sitole – who by the way has literally written a book on African cooking – gave us a feast. We were so delighted to meet Phumi’s family and get a chance to relax together. I caught Kea snapping cell-phone shots of the many child pictures of Phumi on the walls. Mosher and Peter took a moment to light their celebratory cigars. Mark held down the corner of the table and declared the food “unbelievable” every minute or so, in case anyone had forgotten. They hadn’t.
We ended our Johannesburg leg with a trip to the Market Theatre, a landmark of world theatre. The Market was founded in the mid 70s by Barney Simon and Mannie Manim. It stood out for the excellence of its plays and for its role as a non-racial haven for artists. Titans have trod the boards there, among them Simon, Manim, Gibson Kente, Mbongeni Ngema, Percy Mtwa, Reza de Wet, and many others.
Although the building has been renovated and renamed, the walls are covered with pictures of classic productions, and both Leigh, who has worked there extensively, and Gregory, who visited in the 80s and brought shows over to Lincoln Center, took time to point out old friends and fondly remembered productions.
The play tonight was Crepuscule, adapted from the Can Themba story by Khayelihle Dom Gumede. The subject is a romance between a white woman and the author, a black man, set mostly in Sophiatown, We found it quite fitting for our experience today in Joburg, and we thoroughly enjoyed the work of all the artists involved.
Tomorrow we’re off to Cape Town for the final week of our tour. Shows kick off again on the 18th, Mandela Day!