JOHANNESBURG — Playwright, director and actor John Ledwaba gave up theater during South Africa's turbulent 1980s and left his Soweto home to train to be an anti-apartheid guerrilla. But he soon stopped training to lead the fight through theater, staging powerful works that exposed the horrors of racist rule to the world.
Theater mattered in Soweto in those days. With the opening this week of the first state-of-the-art playhouse in South Africa's most famous township, Ledwaba and others think it can matter again.
Apartheid planners saw Soweto as little more than a dormitory for Johannesburg's black maids and gardeners, mine and factory workers. But it has long been a cosmopolitan center of political and artistic life for black South Africans.
The 150 million rand (about $18 million) Soweto Theatre complex with a 436-seat main stage and two smaller performance spaces is part of an ambitious redevelopment plan by the city of Johannesburg for Soweto.
Steven Sack, acting chief executive officer of the new theater, said black South Africans were once "living at the margins of our society." The theater, he said as he proudly led reporters on a tour Monday, is part of efforts to change that.
Sack said the next step in redevelopment plans is the renovation of the nearby Jabulani Amphitheater, which has since the 1950s hosted concerts as well as major funerals and political events. In 1985, one of Nelson Mandela's daughters, Zindzi, stood in Jabulani to read his refusal of an offer from the white racist government to free him from prison on condition he renounce violence.
Since apartheid ended in 1994 and Mandela became South Africa's first black president, Soweto has seen the building of new parks, homes, museums and malls, the paving of more roads and the renovation of schools and stadiums.
"The Suitcase," the production that will open the Soweto Theatre on Friday, brings together some of South Africa's best-known and most beloved talent. The play is based on a story by the late Es'kia Mphahlele about poverty, desperation and hope. The production has music by Hugh Masekela, choreography by Gregory Maqoma, and is directed by James Ngcobo. The lineup of internationally known South African artists underlines the ambitions behind the Soweto Theatre.
The new theater resembles a giant child's toy with walls clad in bright blue, yellow and red tiles and a tent-like entrance covered in an awning of white canvass. Sophisticated and modern, it contrasts sharply with the community halls where plays in Soweto were once performed.
Ledwaba had one bit of advice for the new theater's management: "Please, no weddings and parties!" He wants a stage devoted to theater where audiences can see sophisticated and challenging work.
"I come from a history of using theater to fight," Ledwaba said.
When he was a young actor, Ledwaba remembers casts and crews bringing their own lights, sets and costumes to halls for performances, then clearing everything out so that the hall could be used for the next activity – a wedding, a political meeting, a funeral. Audiences sat on rows of plastic chairs that could be stacked out of the way to make way for dances.
Theater companies back then had to be mobile, so souvenirs ended up scattered or lost, Ledwaba said. One of his own few mementoes, hanging on a wall in the bedroom he uses as a study in his four-room Soweto home, is a poster showing him in character in "Black Dog Inj' Emnyama," a play that toured the world.
Ledwaba played a character closely based on his own experiences during the explosion of youthful militancy in Soweto in the 1970s. Ledwaba and other cast members created "Black Dog" with famed protest theater director Barney Simon in 1984, the year Ledwaba toyed with becoming a guerrilla fighter, but went back to Soweto to create and perform.
Playwright and director Selaelo Maredi – who, like Ledwaba, began performing in Soweto at the start of a theater career that took him around the world – said Soweto theater drew not just large audiences, but police informers sent to find out what black South Africans were thinking and saying. Maredi toured U.S. colleges with "Survival," a play set in a prison that he and three other actors developed in Soweto in the 1970s to explore themes of oppression and resistance.
Maredi laments that Sowetans lost the habit of going to the theater, reluctant to venture into the streets of an increasingly turbulent and crime-ridden area in the 1970s and 1980s and now distracted by other diversions, including satellite TV and shopping mall cinemas.
Maredi hopes to see an off-Broadway to Broadway system created in Soweto with the opening of the new theater. Artists at the gleaming new theater, he said, can work with small acting troupes across the township to develop shows that will help Sowetans tell their stories, and bring them back to the theater.
Sack said he envisioned plays moving from Soweto's halls to the new theater he oversees.
Actor-activists inspired South Africans to defeat apartheid. Artists say they can still inspire today, in a post-apartheid nation determined to defeat crime, violence against women and government corruption. Maredi's latest play explores the challenges women face in post-apartheid South Africa, with actresses speaking out against horrifying rape statistics.
Maredi said, "We need theater more today than we did during apartheid."