The Market Theatre opened in June 1976. But if the date is historic, it is for quite a different reason. The 16 June was marked that year by the bloody repression of the Soweto schoolchildren’s peaceful demonstrations. Young Hector Peterson, photographed dying in a young lad’s arms by his sister’s side, shocked the whole world. His death, along with that of dozens of other children, set the country’s townships on fire, throwing a whole generation determined to finish with apartheid into the arms of the ANC and particularly its armed branch, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
This crucial turning point in South African history coincided five days later with the opening night at the Market. The curtain rose on 21 June 1976 with a performance of Chekhov’s The Seagull. There was no denying that this classic was somewhat out of touch with the period. But, nonetheless, the Market Theatre was to become the nerve centre of artistic protest against the former regime.
The Market theatre was born out of The Company, a troupe of twelve white actors set up by the playwright Barney Simon, a Jewish South African, and the half-Afrikaner, half-Portuguese director Mannie Manim. Everybody chipped in to help turn the old fruit market in Johannesburg’s Indian market into three theatres, two art galleries, a bar, and a restaurant. They all succeeded in converting the theatre’s first administrators most of whom were business men to their credo: to give young people a chance that is to say, all young people, not just whites. Before the theatre even opened, the administrators swore all to appear in court together if there was the slightest charge.
Fifteen years before apartheid ended, the Market theatre was the first cultural institution to dare to flaunt the Group Areas Act, which strictly controlled black South Africans’ movements, confining them to the townships and Bantustans, and imposed strict conditions on their presence in the white neighbourhoods. Right from the start, the theatre aimed to be multiracial. Although the original troupe was exclusively white, as early as 1976 three black actors appeared in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, directed by Benjy Francis, an Indian director who was very involved in community theatre in the townships.
Influenced by the prominent playwright Athol Fugard, Barney Simon and Mannie Manim firmly believed in a South African theatre that refused to content itself simply with comforting the English elite by serving them up Shakespeare, a theatre that was profoundly rooted in the black community, with which they had never stopped working, for that matter, in all illegality.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the Market’s second production, Marat/Sade, transgressed a first taboo, by speaking about revolution, albeit the French one. But, strangely, the first play to be censored, due to its « blasphemous » nature, was the comedy Comedians by Leonard Schach. Here the censors were less indignant about political questions than about a question of vocabulary. The word « fuck » was pronounced too many times for the liking of the puritans and the censors of the Directory of Publications
In 1977, the American musical The me nobody knows, based on the life of youngsters in the ghettos, brought a large multiracial group together on the Market Theatre stage for the first time. Already on the lookout, the Group Areas police did not fail to file a report on the fact that « the White, Indian, Coloured and Bantu spectators watch the same performances and pay the same ticket price ». The report also worried about the actors’ in principal segregated use of toilets and dressing rooms But, in an unusual show of clemency, an inspector let it pass.
Even though rehearsals were banned in the Eighties, a period marked by the national state of emergency, the Market’s reputation soon spread abroad. As early as 1977, the black actor John Kani, who is now the theatre’s director, and Winston Ntshona returned from a triumphant international tour of The Island. But it was Woza Albert!, a play by Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa, which really made the Market’s reputation after 1981. Performed 650 times in 23 countries, this huge success opened the way to other black popular theatre plays signed by authors such as Zakes Mda (Sing for the Fatherland, The Hill), Gibson Kente (Mama and Thel Load), Matsemela Manaka (Egoli, Pula, Vula), and Maishe Maponya (Hungry Earth, Gangsters).
Today, however, the Market Theatre is now only physically at the heart of Johannesburg’s cultural activity. It sits imposingly like a historic monument in the middle of the Newtown district, where the Museum Africa exhibition rooms, Kippie’s jazz club, and two restaurants, Koffiffi and Gramadoelas, are located. Nearby are the huge factory renamed the Electric Workshop, where the 1997 arts biennale was held, the offices of the Film Resource Unit film group, the Dance Factory dance studios, and the Bag Factory’s eighteen artist studios.
All these institutions continue the struggle. They refuse to follow the example of the big private companies that have moved their headquarters out to the residential neighbourhoods of the northern suburbs due to the « Africanisation » and insecurity of the town centre. But although the Market Theatre is still in the town, people’s centres of interest have moved elsewhere. The public is no longer present. A disenchanted critic from the weekly The Mail & Guardian wrote, two years ago, how his evening was first of all spoiled by Zulu, Mbongeni Ngema’s last musical, then by the fact that he could not find his car on the way out, stolen from the car park. One Saturday night last July, the two performances, The Blacks and Hallelujah, drew no more than fifty spectators. Tonight, the very good re-run of the visionary work by the French author Jean Genet, Les Nègres (The Blacks), was no match for the pull of the football game on TV.
On South African theatre, also see: Du théâtre sud-africain d’élite au theatre populaire (From elitist South African theatre to popular theatre, Africultures 4, p.15); Le Costume a pris feu au Bouffes du Nord (The Suit sets alight the Bouffes du Nord, Africultures 26, p.91)///Article N° : 5529