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Friday, July 27, 2018


(Mark Dornford-May)

CNN meets the South African theatre ensemble pioneering township opera

This week on Inside Africa, CNN International meets Mark Dornford-May, the co-founder and artistic director of South Africa’s Isango Theatre Ensemble, to learn more about how they transform high art into township dramas. Placing the classics into a township setting, this ensemble draws on their own traditions and tempos to craft African versions of universal stories.

Isango creates performances with a strong South African character by re-imagining Western theatre classics and creating new work which reflects South African heritage. One recent production told the story of SS Mendi – a sunken troopship that saw the drowning of more than 600 South Africans in the English Channel during the First World War.

The programme meets Marine archaeologist John Gribble to learn more about the history of the SS Mendi: “Black South Africans ended up serving during the First World War as a result of pressure from the British government. There was a huge need for labour, to free up the fighting troupes. In the end, about 21,000 men went to France. They worked behind the scenes, they weren’t allowed to fight or to carry arms, but they served in the military machinery.”

Dornford-May explains why he felt compelled to tell this story on the stage: “Throughout the world there’s often been a whitewashing, literally, of history. A removing of the black face.” Mandisi Dyantyis, Isango’s musical director, explains why the production needed to be performed in South Africa: “The spirits of these men [were] never taken home. It was never taken back home. African culture believes that the bones of the dead speak louder sometimes. They speak in who we become, they speak in the things that happen, to the people that are connected to them.”

When Dornford-May first came to South Africa to establish Isango 20 years ago, he connected with theatre veteran Mannie Manim, who fought for multi-racial theatre during apartheid. Manim tells the programme why such theatre is important: “I thought Mark was a good man with a wonderful plan and I wanted to encourage anyone who was working across the colour line because even in the new South Africa, even today, there are still lots of divisions in our country, sadly so. For black actors to get work, they had to find alternative spaces, alternative routes, alternative buildings… they had to stay off the radar. They had to be underground. I used to go and watch black theatre in church basements.”

The theatre ensemble was immediately a huge success, with over 2,000 people from townships attending the group’s first auditions. Dornford-May reflects on this time: “The musical talent in South Africa is phenomenal. The sort of performing talent in general, in fact, is just amazing. I don’t know why. It seems to me that nearly every South African has a natural inclination to be able to perform.”

The programme follows the Isango ensemble as they rehearse to gain a better understanding of how the team puts together a production. Dyantyis explains that props can be minimal: “Our rule, as it were, is always simple. You can use anything that you can find in the township as a prop or as a sound or as a piece of music. So [we use] marimbas, crates, beer bottles, oil drums, brooms and all of those things.” Mandisi goes on to explain why music is an integral part of South African storytelling: “As a kid in the black community, in the black family, the first thing that you’re taken to [is] church. And in those churches, music plays a massive role… There’s nothing that Africans love more than telling stories through singing.”

Dornford-May says that a South African identity is essential for Isango productions: “I think the sense of community, the sense of strength within a group, within a culture exists within the townships and I think Isango builds on that. I think without that basis, that sense of the life, the intrinsic sort of life force of a township, we wouldn’t exist.”  Choreographer Lungelo Ngamlana describes what Isango represents: “Isango actually means door. It’s from Xhosa. It’s a door. We’re opening up the doors for out black youth culture from the townships to explore, to go further, to see the world. And also tell the stories about South Africa.”

Inside Africa airs on July 27 at 10h30 SAST on CNN International. The show also airs at the following times:
July 27 at 18h30 SAST
July 28 at 04h30 SAST and 19h30 SAST
July 29 at 05h30 SAST and 12h30 SAST
July 30 at 02h30 SAST