JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's Market Theater is one of several African cultural institutions that has recently gone entirely online because of coronavirus restrictions that prevent large gatherings. But for this small institution often known as the "Theater of the Struggle" for its flouting of apartheid-era laws, obstacles are nothing new. Now, the theater hope its artistic message — which touches on local and global events — will resonate beyond the African continent.
Johannesburg’s Market Theater is no stranger to struggle. It opened in 1976, at the height of South Africa’s racist apartheid system, and made a point of flouting segregation laws.
And so now, as a global pandemic has made live shows impossible, the institution’s artistic director, James Ngcobo says the show must go on — even if that means it goes online.
He told VOA the acclaimed theater, which has received 21 international awards for its work, is now seizing the opportunity to spread its stories well beyond this country, by streaming its entire season online.
Not only that — it is writing brand-new, topical shows that touch on the issues many South Africans — and people across the world — are facing right now. Ngcobo said he cooked up the plan shortly after South Africa’s government announced a strict total lockdown in late March, shuttering pretty much all non-essential businesses.
“I then said to my team, ‘we are going on a long pause that we don't know the pause is going to last for for how long. But our stories can never be on pause.’ And my team said to me. ‘So what do we do?’ And I said, ‘well, we are going to commission some of our finest playwrights to create works for us, that, at the moment, these short plays that are between 20 and 25 minutes, that we are producing for the virtual space.’”
South African actor and playwright Paul Slabolepszy says it is more important than ever that art continues to be made. He spoke to VOA on the Google Hangouts platform.
“Without art, we are, we are nothing," he said. "We explain ourselves, our conversations come through storytelling. If we were living just with the struggles that we have with no hope, life would be terrifying. We need stories all the time. We need to connect in any way we can to feel human.”
National theaters in Algeria and Egypt are also doing live shows online, and Somalia’s National Theater recently reopened for Independence Day celebrations —and hopefully more.
Meanwhile, major theaters on New York’s Broadway and London’s West End have also gone online.
Ngcobo says the Market Theater has gotten an enthusiastic response to its online offerings from people in the U.S., Europe and other African countries.
But he laments that the continent’s artistic houses could do more. His theater is communicating with institutions in Ghana, Namibia and Zimbabwe to help them go online.
“In most places around the continent, it's very sad because some places might not have the infrastructure that you find in other countries that I've mentioned, and South Africa. And so we are always looking at an idea of working with countries — especially Anglophone countries,” he said.
At the small theater in central Johannesburg, the doors may be closed, and the lights may be off, but the curtain will still rise.