When Brecht and Sizwe Bansi Met in New Brighton
The venue was St Stephen's Hall in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, and the occasion was our first public performance of Sizwe Bansi is Dead in a black township in South Africa. Date: September 1974. The play was already nearly two years old, but it was only after its West End run that we felt sufficiently protected by its overseas success to risk the hazards involved in a township performance. Up until then its life in South Africa had been restricted to private performances before invited audiences, circumstances which theoretically made us safe from censorship and police interference.
I say theoretically because even under those circumstances there had been incidents. The last one had been just prior to our departure for London. Half an hour before a performance at The Space Theatre in Cape Town we found ourselves confronted by the Security Police and a warning that if we proceeded with the show we would be charged under the Group Areas Act. They claimed the performance would constitute '...occupation of a building in an area which had been zoned strictly for whites'. We ignored the warning and as it turned out our legal advice was better than theirs. No prosecution followed.
Half an hour before a performance at The Space in Cape Town we found ourselves confronted by the Security Police and a warning that if we proceeded with the show we would be charged under the Group Areas Act.
From past experience we knew that what we faced that night in St Stephen's Hall was going to be very different from the appreciative but polite reception we had enjoyed so far. It is one thing to try to educate a comfortable white audience into what the deeply hated Reference Book means to a black man and something else to confront, and in a sense challenge, an angry black audience with those same realities.
Because angry and bitter the mood of New Brighton most certainly was. There had recently been a fresh wave of detentions, this time the victims being mostly young student leaders. The militancy among the youth, which was to explode later in the 1976 Soweto riots, was already very evident and the police were acting with extreme harshness in trying to suppress it. And then finally: Sizwe Bansi.
For New Brighton that was not just the difficult-to-pronounce name of a character in a play. It is a Xhosa phrase and means quite simply: The People are Strong. Our title was a public announcement of political intent. We were going to try to say a few things - hopefully loudly and clearly - that were normally only whispered in the township shebeens and even then only after making certain that nobody present was suspected of being an 'impimpi', a police informer.
When I drove into New Brighton at about half-past six that evening it was my first visit in five years. Since 1969 the authorities had consistently refused to give me permission to enter it. The fact that they had relented on this occasion was, I suppose, some measure of the protection that our much-publicised overseas success had given us. It is impossible to drive into a township without being initially depressed by the appalling conditions in which millions of black people are forced to live in South Africa. This time was no exception.
The same soulless monotony of row after row of little one- and two-roomed houses with abandoned attempts at gardens in front of some of them, rutted and stony dirt roads, queues of women and children at the one water tap servicing an entire street, litter everywhere.
The old catch phrases about the human spirit being able to rise above these conditions didn't work this time. Not that I didn't believe it any more. It was just that I couldn't be naïve about the realities of township life. The damage to people was terribly real. Among my friends I had seen strong men defeated by the apparent hopelessness of the situation and end up wasting away their lives in drunken apathy in the shebeens.
St Stephen's Hall was at that time one of the only two usable halls in New Brighton... population 250 000. A calico banner on the rickety little fence around it announced:
SIZWE BANSI IS DEAD
The London success comes to
All seats R1.00
Inside the hall Winston was setting out chairs and John was organising the playing area and few props needed for the performance.
There was a little stage of sorts at one end, but because our production relied heavily on audience participation we had decided to play on the floor with chairs on three sides.
To describe the facilities as primitive would be an understatement. There were none. Our lighting for example was going to be provided by the three sets of fluorescent tubes on the ceiling, and our lighting plot consisted of four cues - lights out to indicate the performance was about to start; lights on when the audience had settled down; then off, and on again at the end.
For 20 years I had been involved in attempts to make theatre in South Africa under these circumstances and I must admit to feeling just a little defeated by the experience as I watched John and Winston. And also resentful. There is a beautiful and very well-equipped little theatre in Port Elizabeth, but at that time it was still 'whites-only'. The Government had not yet made its token concessions, which have now opened theatres to multi-racial audiences and casts.
John, Winston and I once again discussed the advisability of censoring a few things in the text but in the end decided against it. As John put it: 'Why do their dirty work for them?' It was a problem which Serpent Players - our New Brighton drama group - had faced many times in the past.
From the innocent romp of Machiavelli's The Mandrake - our first effort about 10 years earlier - I had seen the political content of our work increase with every production. It was no coincidence that three members of the group had ended up on Robben Island. Security Branch interest in our activities had matched the growth of our political commitment. This performance was to be no exception. At half-past seven a car with four well-known faces inside parked on the other side of the road outside the hall. But that is also where they stayed and as far as trouble from them was concerned the evening proceeded without incident.
We had always known we would get an audience but the eventual turnout was unlike anything Serpent Players had ever had to deal with before. We stopped selling tickets at nine o'clock because even if we had been able to squeeze another body into the hall he or she wouldn't have been able to see a single bit of the action of the play. Four young men had even managed to scale the walls and were sitting in fanlights.
The evening got under way with a speech from Welcome Duru, a foundation member of the group. To start with he advised anybody who needed to use the toilets to do so immediately as the play was about to begin and there would be no interval. That was followed by biographical sketches of John, Winston, myself and Serpent Players. He then told the audience what a marvellous play they were about to see and urged them to clap as often and as loud as they liked.
He warned them that there were no women and no singing and dancing in the show and that was because they were in for an evening of something called 'straight theatre'. At this point impatient heckling forced him to stop though I'm sure he still had a lot more to say. I switched off the lights, waited in vain for a very noisy audience to settle down, then switched them on again. John was in position with his newspaper and ready to start his opening monologue.
I have never yet known an audience that responded to the first half-hour of the play as if it wasn't getting its money's-worth of laughter. New Brighton was more than just 'no exception'. They knew in a way that no previous audience had known the finer nuance of what John was talking about and could recognise and celebrate every local reference.
New Brighton was mixing laughter into an account of the blows it had received. It was making something out of the utterly devastating.
Listening to them, however, I couldn't also help feeling that something more than just a response to a brilliant comedy performance was involved. What Brecht says of crying and lamentation in his Messingkauf Dialogues applies equally to the gale of laughter that was sweeping through St Stephen's Hall that night. It was the sound of 'a vast liberation'. To take still further liberties with 'poor BB': New Brighton was mixing laughter into an account of the blows it had received. It was making something out of the utterly devastating.
The opening scene was interrupted by two little incidents. At the end of the Ford Factory story a man who had been standing at the back pushed his way through to the front, entered the acting area and then, as if he was a referee at a boxing match, held up John's arm and announced that '... Kani has knocked out Henry Ford the Junior'. The audience was in total agreement. Then towards the end of the scene when a radiantly smiling Winston posed for his photograph in Style's studio with a cigarette in one hand and a pipe in the other, one of the four men up in the gods was laughing so much he fell out of his fanlight.
Sizwe Bansi is not all comedy and that audience's response to its serious moments was just as Brechtian, if not more so. There were many of them but it is one in particular that makes that evening memorable for me.
For the black people in South Africa there is no more potent symbol of their oppression than the Reference Book. It completely dominates and dictates their lives and as such is an object of both hatred and dependence. It must surely be the single cause of more misery in my country than anything else. The final scene in the play opens with Buntu (John) switching the photographs in the Reference Books of Sizwe Bansi (Winston) and a dead man they have stumbled across in an alleyway late at night.
The dead man's book has the endorsement which Sizwe needs, but can't get, in order to stay in Port Elizabeth and look for work. At first Sizwe rejects the idea as it involves abandoning his name and taking on the dead man's identity. Winston didn't get a chance to make his protest. After watching the first few seconds of the operation in stunned silence - there are heavy penalties attached to tampering with a Reference Book - a voice shouted out from the audience: 'Don't do it brother. You'll land in trouble. They'll catch you!'
Another voice responded immediately: 'To hell with it. Go ahead and try. They haven't caught me yet.' That was the cue for the most amazing and spontaneous debate I have ever heard.
Argument and counter-argument, angry declarations and protests followed fast and furiously. As I stood at the back of the hall listening to it all I realised I was watching a very special example of one of Theatre's major responsibilities in an oppressive society: to try to break the conspiracy of silence that always attends an unjust social system. And most significant of all: that conspiracy was no longer being assaulted just by the actors. The action of our play was now being matched and equalled by the action of the audience. People were saying directly and forcefully, almost recklessly so, what they felt and thought. If the police had been present I'm sure that would have been the moment when they would have decided to act.
It was Welcome who brought the evening under our control again by switching off the lights. After a minute or so of darkness he switched them on and John and Winston slowly managed to get the performance going.
To my way of thinking what remained of our play came as something of an anti-climax. In discussing it afterwards John and Winston agreed with me that we should not have interfered with what was happening to the audience, even if it had meant abandoning what remained of Sizwe Bansi is Dead.
A performance on stage had provoked a political event in the auditorium and there was no doubt in our minds which was the most significant. The sense of people wanting to speak, wanting to be heard, had been very urgent and real. As if to confirm that, a healthy round of applause after my last two lighting cues ended up with everybody standing and singing Inkosi Sikilel' iAfrika, God Save Africa, the anthem of the banned African National Congress.
This article is taken from A Night at the Theatre, edited by Ronald Harwood.
- The Observer, Sunday, August 8, 1982