“In between these fixed encampments of desire and paranoia lie ambiguous and ill-defined public spaces whose very fluidity and a-territoriality is providing opportunity for other practices to emerge… Individuals or groups are trying out or inventing new social or economic roles for themselves, to make the city work for them.” – Lindsay Bremner, Writing the City into Being
It’s a Friday afternoon in Hillbrow and outside the Windybrow Arts Centre, a crowd has gathered. Students, adults, and children line the walls, occupy the pavement, and sit on the steps of the Windybrow, forming an impromptu theatre-in-the-round. A spoken word artist emerges and peddles her prose. She is joined by a musician – a multi-instrumentalist – who sits off to the side with his keyboard and guitar. People stare at the scene as they walk past. Some stop and join the crowd while others take photographs on their phones and move on. Eventually, a group of performers step into the centre and begin the show.
A work of site-specific and interdisciplinary theatre taking place live and online, Breaths of Joburg sees director Jade Bowers teaming up with lead performers Lebo Mashile and Tina Redman, and musician Yogin Sullaphen. The performance has grown out of three separate pieces of creative writing about Johannesburg, made in response to the Set in Joburg competition run by UJ Arts & Culture and the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study at the end of 2022.
The texts are short and immersive. They detail street-side hair salons, inner-city shootings, and late-night encounters. The characters inhabiting these stories are sex workers, students, bad men and wise women. These are literary vignettes – short, sharp and vivid depictions of a city that, despite its relative youth, is home to countless tall tales and lived realities.
Somewhere along the line between fiction and reality, on the sunbaked concrete outside the Windybrow, you’ll find Breaths of Joburg. A group of performers made up of students from the UJ Arts Academy Poetry and Drama programmes, and led by Mashile and Redman, make up the various characters and provide the relentless energy that drives the performance.
The scenes are punchy and well-choreographed, with the ensemble doing well to emerge and withdraw when needed, bolstering the performances of Mashile and Redman. Competing with passing cars, sirens, and the constant buzz of the city is no easy task, but the cast, backed by Sullaphen’s live sound, manage to make themselves heard. A few minutes into the performance, people emerge from their high-rise flats to watch from their balconies. In the city, everyone has the potential to be a performer and an audience member, and every moment holds the possibility of play.
In a performance full of stories, singular moments abound. Here, the city becomes both the stage and the invisible performer. A row of plastic beer crates, for example, becomes a place of business and a moment of respite as women get their hair done, momentarily immune to the stares of men passing by.
Moments later, as a character is shot down in the performance, a police van slows on the street, takes in the scene, and drives on. When a character struggles up a hill, it is a literal endeavour – they are moving up the formidable slope of Nugget Street, towards the Hillbrow Tower. And when they begin to invoke a time before the city – before the litter, smog and concrete hardened the landscape’s arteries – one can almost see the hills and imagine the rivers, all of it vaguely recognisable amidst the charged urban circuitry of contemporary Hillbrow.
Still, the fragmented micro-moments of Breaths of Joburg do not always serve the greater performance. At times the work is disjointed and jumbled – more of a mad scramble through the city during rush hour than a collective conversation with its many complexities. Breaths of Joburg is more of a literary and performative sampling than a conventional work of theatre, yes, but the vignettes that animate a performance like this still need a narrative springboard or a central story to return to.
Here, the more substantial stories manage to serve as anchors for the work. Like the tale of the lady who sold the moon, a playful and profound metaphor for daily life and labour in the city. Or the embodiment of the women who walk the streets seemingly without fear. The personification of the city, more of a narrative device than a story, provides another essential layer of characterisation to the work, inviting a reading of the city as a living, breathing, feeling entity.
As a work of site-specific theatre that both animates the city and invites audiences into the pre-existing activity of the space, Breaths of Joburg is hugely successful. It is a work that prompts an earnest engagement with the city, using play and site-specificity as its primary points of entry and, as a result, allows for a performance that’s both participatory and generative. The more people it draws in, and the more interaction it facilitates, the larger and richer the experiment becomes.
As a “dialogue about experiences of everyday, ground-up place-making in city spaces”, Breaths of Joburg is more difficult to read. Can a conversation between a uniquely complex urban space in Johannesburg and a university based in Sweden take place on equal footing? Can the “ambiguous and ill-defined public spaces” of Johannesburg that Lindsay Bremner mentions translate to those watching online from Malmö? How do the outcomes of this cross-continental project find their way back into the sites from which they’ve originated?
These are questions that the team behind Breaths of Joburg have likely already asked themselves, and perhaps the answers can be revealed through future iterations of the performance.
Ideally, Breaths of Joburg will lay the foundations for far more experiments that merge theatre, architecture, public space and creative writing in order to memorialise and engage with the complexity of urban spaces. For now, though, what a complete joy it is to witness a dance party in the heart of the city.
Breaths of Joburg is part of a larger public-art-as-research project with Alex Halligey as lead researcher for UJ Arts & Culture in collaboration with Anders Høg-Hansen and Mikael Rundberg for Malmö University in Sweden. The performances took place outside the Windbrow Arts Centre and online on 20, 21 and 22 April 2023.