NewsSouthern AfricaTheatre: Beyond the rainbow


Posted on Thursday, 12 May 2016 16:01

Theatre: Beyond the rainbow

By Kim Garner in Johannesburg

While apartheid ruled outside, all colours shared the Market stage. Photo©All Rights ReservedJohannesburg's Market Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and complacency is not on the program.

You can barely walk past the Market Theatre without feeling a gravitational pull, urging you inside, begging you to be part of its pulsating creativity. It's partly the building itself.

With sunlight streaming through the enormous arched windows, you can imagine being in the middle of the Indian Fruit Market it once was, only today each staircase is peopled by cast and crew running between the three intimate auditoriums.

We are the custodians of the founders' vision. We must not stray from it, but grow it

Forget stadiums; here, stages are often ditched in favour of performing right on the floor, while red-velvet seats hug tightly around the action.

Forty years ago, the Market Theatre began to bring the people of South Africa together, at a time when the country was at its most turbulent. "It was a thing that seemed virtually impossible in the latter part of the 1970s, a theatre, in Johannesburg [then Transvaal] that was free from the restrictions and humiliating laws of apartheid," says actress and director Maralin Vanrenen.

Founders Barney Simon and Mannie Manim set the whole idea in motion. As segregation reigned outside its doors, inside was colour-blind. "The Me Nobody Knows was the first non-racial musical produced from scratch in South Africa. Being at the Market was like being on an island with a common sense of freedom,'" says actor Jonathan Taylor, who was in the 1978 cast of the musical.

While the older generation of actors found much-needed camaraderie in its early years, many actors who grew up after the end of apartheid in 1994 credit the Market with inspiring their chosen profession.

Nat Ramabulana, 31, says, "My first time at the Market Theatre was on a school visit. We got to watch two shows, one starring the legendary Dr. John Kani and Fiona Ramsay. I was mesmerised and intrigued and it later influenced my passion for theatre."

Artistic director James Ngcobo says he feels that he and his colleagues are carrying on the tradition of the Market Theatre: "We are the custodians of the founders' vision. We must not stray from it, but grow it."

There are currently two educational pro- grammes that continue to shape young people's creative careers. But continuing the theatre's legacy is not easy. "Funding for our artistic programmes remains our greatest challenge," says CEO Annabell Lebethe, "as well as attracting new audiences. We are competing with so many recreational [and] entertainment activities."

The theatre's mission is to tell continental and international stories as well as those of South Africa, and to continue to push the boundaries. "After '94 we got into a euphoric state of being the rainbow nation," Ngcobo says. "We stopped talking about where we came from because it was uncomfortable. But with the recent racial tension here, it's clear we need to start having that dialogue."

In that spirit Ngcobo recently included an Afrikaans play on the programme. Despite the criticism he received, he presses that diversity is a must: "There has been a metamorphosis from where we were in '94and if we don't speak to that, we might as well close the doors." ●

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