Theatre in the Backyard – A South African Township Drama
THE NIGHT WE SAW GEORGE’S BABY | Darrin Henry
Theatre in the Backyard was a performance drama like nothing I have ever seen before; energetic, emotional and at times a little uncomfortable to watch such was the realism.
The whole production uses an ordinary backyard in Nyanga, a South African Township, as both a stage and the audience viewing area. The show literally goes on around you. Quite a cool concept, one that took both Sharon and I by surprise. This was followed by a home cooked dinner with the director and cast for a chance to discuss what we’d just seen. A brave decision by the director, now that I think about it, to go head to head with critique that could swing either way. Not sure I would risk that myself!
My Review of Theatre in the Backyard
I’m going to explain Theatre in the Backyard further, but don’t worry, I’ll try not to make this a spoiler post.
Firstly, it’s good. Really, really good. I’ve not written a theatre review before so I’m not quite sure of the correct terminology.
Mhlanguli George is the man behind the ‘drama,’ he’s the writer, director and producer. After humouring our feeble attempts to pronounce Mhlanguli correctly he tells us to just call him, George.
New-Born Theatre Productions is the company founded by George which operates Theatre in the Backyard. With a long career in the arts, including teaching at the University of Cape Town dance school, ‘Backyard’ is in good hands with George.
Theatre in the Backyard is his “baby” as he described it.
It’s inspired by the real backyards of the Townships just outside Cape Town. George explained how he discovered that backyards often contain a completely different world to the ‘front of house’ seen from the street. Fascinated by this, George actually roamed the neighbourhoods, literally knocking on doors (or backyard gates) and asking to look into the owners backyards. I’m not sure how I would react if someone did that to me, however, it seems curiosity convinced people to allow him in which led to the birth of George’s “baby” – turning a once hidden facet of the country’s poorest neighbourhoods into a theatre.
It’s actually quite a great idea. Instead of expensive set building, lighting, seating and headaches creating authentic backdrops – just bring the audience to the real thing.
You Can Leave Your Hat On
The show relies on very little in the way of props so can be produced in almost any backyard which is what actually happens. Takings at the ‘gate’ on theatre nights are shared with the hosting home owners making this a shared opportunity for the community that extends beyond just economics. So far the run of shows, or seasons, have been limited but successful and feedback by all accounts has been positive.
Our visit was in mid June, southern hemisphere winter, so it was cold. Yes, Africa gets cold as well. As the title ‘Theatre in the Backyard’ suggests, this was an outdoor performance, the chilly night injecting a certain realism to the drama. A tip if you decide to go at this time of year, take a warm coat and a scarf. And a hat if you’re follicly challenged like me.
As to the performance? Well lead actor, Lamla Ntsaluba, brought it all to life, quickly sucking us into the plot of a man troubled by the untimely passing of his wife. The story was driven by real-time references to local issues, politics and lifestyles. That said, the essence of the plot is universal and reaches beyond the Township; everyone will identify with it.
By design, we felt a bit uncomfortable at times in a voyeuristic sense such was the intimacy of the event. The yard was the stage. We were the audience; or were we participants? The lines were intentionally blurred. There was no conventional start to the performance. Or finish for that matter.
If you go to see Theatre in the Backyard here’s how it works:
A guide from the tour company, ‘Coffeebeans Routes’ who have partnered with George, will collect you from your hotel, wherever that may be. We were in central Cape Town. Our guide was Sabelo who made the 30 min drive out to Nyanga Township, an experience in itself, sharing insight and personal history of some of the recent troubled times of South Africa, birth of the Townships and realities of life today.
As you leave the main motorway you suddenly find yourself driving through the sprawly Nyanga Township. It’s a fascinating drive.
You will be met by George at the house where the show will take place. Inside you’ll have coffee (or tea) and a South African special, vetkoek. Delicious. Introductions and conversation flowed easily on our visit as George gave us the background to Theatre in the Backyard.
Then you’ll go outside to the backyard for the show. Once this is over, it’s back inside for a traditional Xhosa dinner and a chance to discuss the show. Sabelo drove us back to the hotel, dropping us off three and half hours after being picked up.
For Sharon and I it was an wonderful experience from start to finish. We returned to our hotel room with a feeling of being lucky enough to have witnessed the early stages of something that has all the potential to become a major attraction for Cape Town. #lovecapetown
Watch this space!
Theatre in the Backyard
Cost: $585 (US dollars) for a group of up to four people.
Reservations can be made online via the Coffeebeans website.
Tickets for Sharon and I were provided courtesy of Cape Town Tourism. The opinions on the show are entirely our own.