The 1970s saw an intensification of worker and trade union struggle and the student uprising of 1976 which sowed the seeds of the revolution that would, after 14 years of bloodshed, growing oppression, and violence, result in the birth of democracy.
As repression grew and the voices of political activists were increasingly silenced, theatre became an important means of voicing the protests that were banned from the streets and political platforms of the country.
Theatre emanated from the unions, from the Black Consciousness movement, from the collaborative efforts of Fugard, Kani and Ntshona, from Kente, and from a multitude of university and fringe groups. The Music Drama Arts and Literature Institute (MDALI), an offshoot of Union Artists and Phoenix Players, formed in 1972 sought to "promote self determination, self realisation and self support in theatre arts".
The Shah Theatre Academy in Durban continued to stage plays up to the 1980s, the Imitha Players were founded in East London in 1970, and the Inkhwezi Players emerged in Grahamstown in 1974. Familiar texts and universal themes were adapted to reflect local conditions in a variety of ways.
In 1970, Welcome Msomi, collaborating with Elizabeth Sneddon, director of the Theatre Workshop Company in Durban, and Peter Scholz produced Umabatha, a Zulu version of Macbeth, which was performed both in South Africa and at the World Theatre Season in London in 1972. Dorkay House's Phoenix Players, directed by Barney Simon, created Phiri, an African jazz musical which placed Ben Jonson's Volpone in a township setting; Workshop 71 used Crossroads to present Everyman in township terms.
Most township playwrights wrote in English, interspersed with a variety of African languages and slang greeted with appreciative enthusiasm by black members of the audiences and, in the main, stony silence from the whites to most of whom black languages were entirely foreign.
An important theatre group to emerge in the 1970s was the non-racial Junction Avenue Theatre Company whose innovative, often anarchic workshopped productions carried titles like The Fantastical History of a Useless Man, Randlords and Rotgut, and Tooth and Nail.
While indigenous theatre was exploding, venues for its performance were not. The state subsidised Performing Arts Council's were not interested in new South African work in English and certainly not interested in anything that challenged the political status quo. In 1976, for instance, the only local work to be seen on the stage of the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT) was coloured poet Adam Small's Kanna Hy kô Huistoe.
The few commercial managements did nothing to encourage local work, preferring to stage revivals of the work of those who were no longer alive to protest and to glean what they could from overseas playwrights who were more interested in their bank balances than their principles.
New and innovative venues began to emerge and productions of controversial local work found their homes in various spaces at the University of the Witwatersrand, at The Space Theatre in Cape Town, The Stable Theatre in Durban, after 1976, the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, and, from 1977, The Baxter Theatre on the University of Cape Town campus.
The Space, founded in Cape Town by theatre photographer Brian Astbury and his actress wife Yvonne Bryceland, opened in May 1972 and established itself as a defiantly non-racial venue in a racially-divided country. The first pioneering fringe theatre in the country, it mounted almost 300 productions starting with the premier of Athol Fugard's Statements After an Arrest under the Immorality Act.
It hosted the first productions out of Port Elizabeth of the Kani/Ntshona/Fugard collaborative The Island and Sizwe Bansi is Dead, and gave a voice to Donald Howarth's Othello Slegs Blankes, Fatima Dike's early plays, and many others. It also became home to a host of young actors who would become stars and stalwarts of the South African stage.
Taken over by Moyra Fine and Rob Amato after Astbury and Bryceland left, it survived as The People's Space for some two years before succumbing to overwhelming financial pressures.
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