Going to the Theatre in South Africa: Warm Havens in a Country Laced with Barbed Wire

11 Aug

I’m behind on my blogging! Andy and I have just arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and tomorrow a dozen of my students will join us here for a two-week exchange program we have with the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UniRio). More on the exchange (which involves theatre in prisons) in future posts. I’m going to try to catch up on my South Africa blogging and then launch into the Brazil trip. Please bear with me. We had such a whirlwind trip to South Africa that we haven’t had much time to write.

Here we are taking our own picture at the State Theatre.

Here we are taking our own picture at the State Theatre.

During this trip to South Africa, we’ve had the opportunity to catch a couple of plays and see various theatre venues. I was startled to find that so far every theatre space we’ve visited has been part of a large complex of performance venues. Apparently, the Apartheid Era government built huge state-sponsored art complexes in most of the major cities in the nation. We saw a play at the aptly named State Theatre in Pretoria the first week that we were here, and we were amazed at the size of the building. Eleven stories high with eight functioning performance spaces, the State Theatre is overwhelmingly large and a bit confusing to navigate. It has impressive lobbies, a ritzy bar, a full scale opera stage, a large stage meant for musical theatre, a variety of black box theatres, and tons of wing and fly space in the big venues for bringing sets on and off. The grand scale of the place felt a bit bizarre in light of the fact that we saw very few people there.

The building had little lighting outdoors, so when our taxi dropped us off at this enormous stone edifice, we worried that the doors would be locked. We got inside the building and walked the length of it—a long city block—before seeing a single person, who turned out to be an usher. We asked him about where we might find the play we were there to see, and he pointed us up a flight of stairs. We emerged into another lobby with a ticket window and picked up our tickets. We were half an hour early, and the doors to the theatre were locked. A lonely usher tried to talk us into buying concessions from her stand, but we’d just eaten dinner. No other audience members appeared. Five minutes before the start of the play, the doors to the theatre opened, and we took seats in the middle of the audience. It was probably a 100 seat theatre, intimate and thoughtfully designed. About ten other people arrived in the next few minutes and took seats in the rows behind us, but the small size of the crowd shocked me because tickets were so affordable. We paid about five rand, which is less than five dollars, for seats to see professional theatre, and the next week in Johannesburg we paid only ten rand a seat to see a play there at the Market Theatre—a well respected playhouse.

It turns out that tickets to the State Theatre in Pretoria are so affordable because the government still owns and maintains the impressive complex of performance venues. After the performance, we spoke to one of the managers of the theatre who had been on staff there for many years. The State Theatre now has to fund all of the productions that take place there, but they inhabit the space for free. They may not have huge audiences, but the theatre boasts an impressively large staff. There were also two other productions in other theatre spaces in the building that night, and we got to poke our heads into the theatres to watch a little bit of the productions. Both of these other productions were large-scale musicals in Afrikaans. Pretoria remains one of the hubs for the Afrikaans language, and when we were in Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg, we heard about plays being performed (in and out of prisons) in the Zulu and Xhosa languages. It makes sense that South African would be such a multilingual nation, given its colonial history, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn how much theatrical activity—even at the largest of theatre venues—takes place in languages other than English.

At both the State Theatre and the Market Theatre the ushers and staff were incredibly gracious, entertaining our questions about the state of theatre in South Africa today and going out of their way to welcome us. On both of our theatre outings, we planned to get a taxi back to our hotel after the performance, and at both theatres someone from the staff insisted on driving us themselves. This has something to do with the relative scarcity of taxis in the neighborhoods of these theatres at the times we were leaving, but I can’t imagine the box office manager leaving his post at a major theatre in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles to drive two foreigners back to their hotel. Everywhere in the world that I have traveled, I’ve met kind and warm theatre folk, but in South Africa the theatre people we encountered went well out of their way to be good to us, though we had never communicated with them before and were not successful in our efforts to compensate them for the time and gas money they spent on us.

The swimming pool at a fancy high school in Joburg.

The swimming pool at a fancy high school in Joburg.

I can’t quite get over the contrast between this spirit of trust and generosity and the intense atmosphere of security that I’ve described in my earlier posts about this trip. We were often warned by locals that we should not walk the streets of any of the towns we visited at night because danger would befall us. We took their advice and didn’t chance anything, and in the daytime we walk through crowded streets which included some rather aggressive street hustlers. I believe that South Africa does suffer from many real and present dangers, as any place with such poverty, unemployment, and racial tensions would. However, the theatres we visited, including the huge and lovely Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, were some of the only buildings we entered that did not require us to pass through security and had no barbed wire around the perimeter. Everywhere else we went, it seemed there was a cultivated sense of heightened threat. The ritzy high school across the street from our hotel looked just like a prison from the outside on the ground, but you could see from our window on one of the higher floors of the hotel that the school within the walls looked more like a country club. Even the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, where I gave a talk at the end of our visit, was outfitted like a prison. We had to show ID and pass through locked doors and gates to get to the classrooms and professors’ offices, and inside the buildings, quite a few classrooms had bars across the doors that could be locked separately from the regular doors. (This also seemed to be the case at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, though we only saw that campus from one of its parking lots.)

Fantastic knitting store in Pretoria--surrounded by barbed wire.

Fantastic knitting store in Pretoria–surrounded by barbed wire.

Why then were the theatres and the theatre people so open? It’s hard to say, though I don’t doubt that we appeared nonthreatening at least in part because of our foreignness and phenotypic whiteness (at least in the context of South Africa—we did have a funny moment along the way where a train conductor found Andy Martínez to be an unpronounceable name). That, however, doesn’t explain the lack of guards or barbed wire or other barriers to entrance at the theatres. The theatre is, and ought to be, a space where the public feels welcomed and invited, but so many other places we visited which strive to welcome paying customers—like the amazing knitting store we visited in Pretoria—are hidden behind forbidding walls and rows of barbed wire. These theatres were ostensibly in no better neighborhoods than the universities, and part of the reason the theatre staff was so eager to take us back to our hotels had to do with concern for our safety. Why then do they not need security comparable to that of the universities and shops that surround them?

This is pure conjecture on my part, but perhaps the universities and shops are better guarded than they need to be. I asked a university professor in Johannesburg whether all the walls, barbed wire, and security cameras everywhere were necessary. If one’s home didn’t have such defenses, would it automatically be targeted for break-ins and burglaries? She said no one in South Africa knows because everyone has a security system. Another professor in Durban, when I asked her about the metal bars she had to unlock to get into her office on campus, told me that the “whole country is a prison.” She and her husband have two young children, and theirs is the only house on their street that does not have a fence or a security system. They have never had any crime on their property, and they actively cultivate positive relationships with their neighbors.

Crime and fear in South Africa are both potent and real forces, but perhaps, like mass incarceration, the theatre of security—the ostentatious presentation of defenses and the constant talk of danger—creates more divisions and problems than it solves. The theatres we visited were some of the most open, welcoming, spacious places that we saw in South Africa, and despite the long national tradition of confronting Apartheid and incarceration in its plays, the theatres were some of the only places we went in South Africa that did not remind me of prisons.


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