On the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela Stefan Simanowitz reports on the opening of a new theatre rising from the ashes of apartheid.
The day after South Africa commemorated the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela, a less significant but nonetheless politically poignant event was celebrated in Cape Town. In the inner city area of District Six, demolished by the apartheid government, the exiled South African playwright, Athol Fugard opened a new theatre named in his honor.
The Fugard Theatre is the first permanent home for the internationally acclaimed Isango Portobello Theatre Company whose current production of The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo) won a prestigious Olivier award in 2008. The gala opening was attended by several luminaries from the acting world including Janet Suzman and Alan Rickman, who abandoned the set of the new Harry Potter film to attend.
Isango Portobello is a company of black South African actors whose cast members all come from the surrounding townships. Their stunning and inventive versions of the Magic Flute, A Christmas Carol, The Mysteries and U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha (later made into a film) are well known to West End audiences. Fusing classical and African musical styles and instruments, mixing languages, and combining breathtaking choreography, theirs is a uniquely infectious and uplifting experience.
The theatre itself is housed in a beautifully renovated former textile warehouse fronted by a nineteenth century gothic church. With space for 270 people sat on padded benches and stools, it is an intimate galleried space with a sloping open stage. It is situated near the port in an area called District Six, a once vibrant racially-mixed suburb originally established as a community of freed slaves, artisans, and immigrants.
On February 11th 1966 using the infamous Group Areas Act, the apartheid government declared District Six a “whites only” area. In the following years over 60,000 people were forcibly removed from their homes to barren outlying areas known as the Cape Flats, and the area bulldozed.
Despite an ongoing land restitution process most former residents are still awaiting proper compensation from the government for their land and many have died waiting to return to the area. As a result of the uncertainty surrounding restitutions, District Six remains almost completely undeveloped: a gaping scar on one of the world’s most beautiful cities and an ugly monument to apartheid.
Janet Suzman believes that it is the painful history of the area that makes the opening of this theatre here so important. “Many young people don’t know about District Six and struggle to get their heads around the concept that people could be forced from their homes because of the colour of their skin,” she says. “This is still a desolate, obliterated place and to have a cultural centre here, right beside the District Six museum, is a wonderful thing.”
Athol Fugard, now 78, who arrived in Cape Town from his home in America, has come out of artistic retirement in order to write and direct a new play for the theatre which will premiere in March.
In the 1950’s Fugard, once described by Time magazine as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world”, began working with a racially integrated theatre group. Following persecution by the government for breaching the race laws he was forced into exile, ending up in California where he still works as professor of drama.
According to the company’s British-born artistic director, Mark Dornford-May, it is fitting that the theatre should be named after Fugard. “His work helped underline the stupidity and barbarity of the then political system, often with great humour and always with great humanity,” he said.
Speaking from the stage Fugard started by joking that he was pleased to have a theatre named after him whilst he was still alive. Then, struggling to hold back the tears, he talked about the ghosts of the past that still haunt South Africa and that still inhabit District Six. “This theatre will hark back to those ghosts,” he said with emotion.