‘Township Theatre’ and ‘performance in a Township Theatre style’ are phrases fans of Tangle will be very familiar with. It’s the style in which we perform many of our discovery productions, enabling Tangle Company, our resident ensemble to perform in a much wider range of settings and thus engage with communities that would otherwise not experience African Caribbean theatre.
The history of Township Theatre is fascinating and inspirational. And in this three part blog we give you a relatively brief introduction into its origins and legacy…
It is always the desire of a repressive regime to suppress the culture of those they subjugate. History is filled with examples; just think of the Nazis burning of over 100,000,000 books during the Holocaust. Often though, the result of such policies is the exact opposite of what it hoped to achieve. Such was the case in South Africa, as the pro-apartheid National Party attempted to control every facet of black life they instead created a melting pot of political expression within the black communities, which culminated in the blossoming township theatre of the 1970’s.
The root of the artistic expressions of the indigenous Africans was far older. Its true origins can be found in the African oral traditions, folk tales spoken around the fire such as the Zulu izibongo (praise poems). Combined with this was the influence of 19th century missionaries who introduced English theatre to the country. This fusion helped the formation of a unique style in which music, dance, mime and farce all played an important part.
Townships were created by the ruling white authorities from the 1890s onwards to accommodate the black work force that was needed for the mines and to accelerate the country’s increasing industrialization. This segregation was enforced under the pretence of responding to disease epidemics in overcrowded neighbourhoods.
With the National Party gaining power in 1948, the establishment of townships and pace of forced removals increased. The ruling white Afrikaaners passed miscegenation laws, institutionalized legal segregation, formalized racial categories and restrictions on movement, and embedded apartheid physically into the landscape. Townships were highly controlled bedroom communities. Getting to work often involved long commutes of up to three hours. Leisure activities were also strictly regulated: the only legal beer halls were in government buildings, and dirt lots served as football pitches. Yet as their size grew so did the burgeoning theatre scene, an increasingly popular form of entertainment.
Important in laying the foundations for township theatre were theatre groups such as the Mthethwa Lucky Stars, the first black troupe, whose skits were dramatisations of Zulu past. Performances such as Umthakathi (“Witch”) and Ukuqomisa (“Courting”) were given to both black and white audiences during the 1920s and 1930s and proved especially popular with black workers. These shows were a combination of tribal singing and dancing and European structure and basic sets – a style that developed over subsequent decades.
The 1950’s saw apartheid’s stranglehold tighten, leading to the further emergence of township theatre. The Union of the Southern African Artists (Union Artists) was formed in 1952 by a group of white theatre officials hoping to facilitate black performers and they produced the first township musical – 1959’s King Kong. Although written by white people it portrayed the life of boxer, Ezekiel Dlamini and gave black performers a chance to perform on the international stage, running at London’s Prince’s Theatre in 1961. It was billed as an “all African jazz opera” and captured a sense of township life.
Some thought that these productions deprived the townships of local talent and that they focussed their efforts too much on foreign recognition, rather than creating a popular theatre for the black communities. Shows like King Kong did however ignite the flame of popular theatre in townships, paving the way for Gibson Kente, who is sometimes described as the father of township theatre…