A protest play about the real and metaphorical prisons of the people who lived and died in Johannesburg’s gold mines.
Steven Sack is the CEO of the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand and was responsible for the building of the Soweto Theatre. He is a past board member of the Market Theatre and an original member of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company. After watching the current production of Egoli at the Market Theatre, Sack remembered his friend and colleague Matsemela Manaka. The playwright had asked Sack to help set up a degree programme at the Funda Arts Centre in the 1980s.
Matsemela Manaka was a writer, director, actor and poet who founded the Soyikwa Institute of African Theatre at the Funda Arts Centre in 1979. Egoli was first produced by Soyikwa African Theatre in 1976. Due to Soyikwa Theatre’s belief in a communal approach to plays, the final version of Egoli was a collaboration between the writer and his two original actors: John Moalusi Ledwaba and Hamilton Mahonga Silwane. Sack says, ‘I was privileged to be in that environment’ and in the next breath he sighs and holds his head, whispering the old adage: ‘it was an interesting time.’
Having seen the first production of Egoli at a community hall 35 years ago, Sack was fascinated to see what young director Phala Ookeditse Phala, with the benefit of the fully equipped Laager stage, would do with the play. He vividly recalls seeing John Ledwaba in Egoli painstakingly try to thread a needle with a manic sense of urgency. The image still makes him shake his head at the potency of the simple act. ‘It was a time of great successes,’ he says but adds that ‘it’s hard to imagine those times.’ The Laager, which was renovated in 2015 to create a mobile creative venue, was set up as a square amphitheatre for Egoli; as directed by Phala Oekeditse Phala mentored by Makhaola Siyanda Ndebele.
The dimly lit preset space met the audience in a confrontational format. The audience was cast as visitors in the living museum of the characters’ story. They had to quietly creep to their seats surrounding the carefully laid out clothes and paraphernalia. When the cast completed their mining task, they proceeded to their living space: a tiny shared square in the middle of the stage. But the performers seemed completely oblivious of the audience around them at the start of their daily chores as they washed themselves, prayed, drank and blew their noses. This was a careful choice that escalated into an obvious ignoring of the audience who became illuminated along with the performers when one actor sat in the auditorium and blew his nose with his t-shirt next to a nervously giggling group of women.
The audience was part of the piece but they were not going to be pandered to. ‘I wanted the audience to feel like they’re eavesdropping,’ says Phala. The entire play has the tone of a memorial and closes with the song ‘Ayanqanqazela amabunu / abulal’uLedwaba / nithasixole kanjani? / amabunu abulal’uLedwaba’. The song asks how they must forgive when Ledwaba was killed. It is haunting as it connects the past to the present as South Africa is being confronted with the debris of the past. ‘What the Market Theatre meant 40 years ago – it was a huge step forward! I mean Barney [Simon] they used to do theatre in their living rooms, in their homes, because the spaces that existed were all racially proscribed places.’
For Sack, this is a significant opportunity for young artists who are also beginning to work collaboratively in order to gain political agency. He remembers finding his purpose in Junction Avenue and that it was working with his fellow students that his ‘real education happened’. What makes this play pertinent, as 2016 began with harsh confrontations on social media regarding race relations in this country, is that it does not merely point fingers outward but looks inward also. The cast’s choice to involve and ignore the audience at specific intervals, and the use of different vernacular languages and a ‘broken’ English, is true to the times and to the place of the mines but it also functions to speak to the audience and to the self.
The origins of the Market Theatre in apartheid’s environment, for Sack, are ‘extraordinary!’ And so, in his description of the profound middle ages, the narrative of the Market Theatre is ‘a story about how symbolic thought and cultural practice… are just part and parcel of what it means to be human.’ While the outside market has been replaced by a mall – as the space evolves – the ethos within remains.