Alexandra, if you’ll remember, is the place I was warned to never set foot in. “Don’t ever take this exit,” were pretty much the first words of Noisette’s driver G to us when we first arrived in Johannesburg and he was driving us to our new home from the airport.
As you’ll also remember, I totally ignored G’s advice. Mainly because I hate when people tell me what I can’t do. But that didn’t keep me from being scared to death when I did make that first foray into Johannesburg’s oldest and most notorious township. It did indeed look totally scary. A shantytown, crisscrossed by narrow winding alleys, building rubble piled up on corners, washing hanging on lines in grassless back yards, barefoot children scampering in the dust among a few goats, shady characters milling about and staring at me and, I imagined, my shiny car in a malevolent and greedy manner.
Fast forward to three years later, and I’m now bringing you a story about a theater production in Alexandra. Yes, theater, of all things. Something you associate with culture and education and leisure – all attributes that don’t usually make a place like Alexandra pop into your mind.
The thing is, Alexandra hasn’t really changed in three years. It has just changed in my perception. It’s amazing how powerfully your preconceptions can alter what you think of as reality. What looked scary that first day became vibrant. What looked disorderly became lovable. What looked shady became interesting. And what looked malevolent became welcoming.
Of course Alexandra, viewed through my newfound perception, would be the perfect place for theater. Would hunger for it, actually. As fellow blogger 2Summers has pointed out (and where I first read about this story), it is a community of about 180,000 people, squeezed into an impossibly small area right next to one of Johannesburg’s richest suburbs, and it has been around for almost exactly 100 years. It has history and traditions. It has people with enormous talent and ambition who have stories to tell. Amazing stories and sad stories and terrifying stories, because real life in a township supplies an abundance of them.
One such person with talent and a story to tell is Ntshieng Mokgoro, founder of Olive Tree Theatre Production. In 2009, Ntshieng was the first black woman to win the Standard Bank Young Artists Award for Drama and she now organizes theater workshops for women in Alexandra. Her idea is that theater can do great things – help people to feel better, save hearts from dryness ,tell stories that can incrementally change our world, or our perspective at least. One thing that sets Ntshieng apart is that she prefers to complete a play with the insights and experiences of the audience so that the play “becomes a living, breathing, evolving piece.” I wish I could see this. To me, this is the essence of Africa. The idea of people being in it together, the spirit of Ubuntu, the meshing of an individual’s ambition with the community and them feeding off of each other. When Ntshieng received her drama award, she said: “The award belongs to the community, it is just that it is through me.” What amazing grace and wisdom for this child of Alexandra.
I came across Ntshieng’s story via a fellow expat, Manuela Accarpio. Much like I discovered Alexandra Baseball while more or less aimlessly surfing the web, Manuela was looking for events to participate in that celebrated Alexandra’s centenary last year, but she didn’t find much. “Alex always seems to me to be the forgotten township,” she told me. “Most South Africans had no idea Alex was 100.” Luckily she did eventually find an article about Ntshieng and, on a whim, decided to call her. Moved by her story, she set out to meet her in person and, on another whim, invited her neighbor Kerryn Irvin to come along. A mutual relationship evolved, and with Kerryn’s help Olive Tree Theatre Prodcuction became an NGO – no small feat, I can assure you, having tried and failed to guide my baseball club through the same exasperating procedure fraught with the worst of South African bureaucracy. They started thinking about a Womens Theatre Festival to give new emerging female South African directors a chance to show their plays, and this festival became reality and is happening this coming weekend! It’s from October 25-27 in the Yarona Building near the Pan African Shopping Mall (a building I have often used as landmark when meeting up with my friends in Alex because, as they’ll readily tell you, I never quite learned to navigate it on my own) and tickets can be purchased for R60 at the door. More details here.
If this sounds pretty professional to you, it should. It’s amazing what these women have put together by the sheer force of their will. And yet, as you can imagine, it has been an uphill struggle, and still is. For instance, the one thing Alexandra doesn’t have is a proper theater. In terms of an actual building that people can go to and purchase tickets for sale at a ticket window. That has a stage with a curtain and seats for the audience and restrooms and such basic things you take for granted having grown up in the lap of luxury. Or what seems like the lap of luxury to an Alexandra resident when really it was just an average middle class upbringing in a Western country.
The good news is, good theater doesn’t need a fancy building. All it needs is people who have a story to tell. “There might not be a building,” says Manuela. “But there is theater. Theater can be anyplace where there is an actor and an audience, even in a soap shop!” Indeed, that is where Ntshieng and the other women have been rehearsing, squeezed between floor polish and household cleaner and pausing every time a customer comes in to buy something.I hope you can make time this weekend to go and see what has sprung up from the confines of a soap shop and the mind of an amazing woman. I promise you that you’ll be entertained and moved, and in addition you’ll be helping a dream come true. Ntshieng’s and Kerryn’s and Manuela’s big dream of a theater, a proper theater as I just described it. A theater for Alex, for the entire community.
“I love theater. I live for theater. This is my passion.” Watch this interview of Ntshieng Mokgoro and let yourself be inspired by her story: