No look at township theatre would be complete with a mention of Woza Albert! Whilst touring with Gibson Kente in the late 1970’s Percy Mtwa and Mbongewi Ngema discussed what would happen if Jesus Christ were to come back to earth in apartheid South Africa. They turned that conversation into one of the country’s most successful shows abundant with the familiar energy and rhythm of township theatre.
There was a flipside to the state oppression. The prospering theatre scene led to the emergence of new and innovative venues such as Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre, Durban’s Stable Theatre , and perhaps most famously Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. The Baxter Theatre opened in 1977 and built a relationship with a local township group, the Cape Flats Players. They mainly performed their own original work which would open in Cape Town and then, if popular, move to the Market Theatre. This gave shows a different audience and sometimes allowed them international exposure, a counterpoint to the apartheid propaganda spread by the National Party.
As well as powerful opponents, local theatre also faced logistical problems, as most townships were devoid of amenities and cultural space. Soweto’s population was higher than a million in the 1970’s yet only had one nightclub, one hotel and a solitary cinema. Productions were performed in draughty communal or church halls and could be ruined by a heavy storm, when hail on a flat corrugated iron roof drowned the voices of the performers. Conditions were difficult for rehearsal, meaning that many performances were unscripted and carried out in hastily convened venues, advertised on the day with impromptu banners. It was very common for many “fly-by-night” township groups to assemble for single productions, which proved harder to regulate or suppress.
The end of apartheid and 1994 electoral success of the African National Congress (ANC) did not mean the end of township theatre, a vital part of community life that nobody wanted to disappear.
Township theatre opened doors to creating a symbiotic relationship with the South African people. Performances honoured tradition but also demanded change. They gave a powerful voice to the anti-apartheid movement and a chance for messages to be heard. The ideas came from the life of the people. Aside from the most well-known plays and musicals, this theatre has left very few scripts behind, but much more important than any written records are the powerful memories and the lasting idea that improvisation, culture and ultimately people, will always find a way to overcome injustice.