Celine Dion blares from a Nissan boot. A man pokes at the coals of a make-shift braai in an iron drum. A little white boy in a torn Spiderman T-shirt scampers across the road after buying a packet of Nik-Naks from a spaza shop. A police van hurtles past, blue siren screaming. A skinny dog pushes its snout into a pile of rubbish. Paint peels. The Jukskei stinks. Children sing. I’m walking through Bertrams, and watching a play.
Alex Halligey’s Izithombe 2094 (which means ‘Pictures of 2094’; 2094 being the postcode for all of Bezuidenhout Valley), is street theatre gone rogue. This hybrid, somewhat hallucinatory performance piece is part walking tour, part public art that attempts to tell the stories of the inhabitants of one of Joburg’s roughest neighbourhoods – Bertrams. But it doesn’t tell the stories for them, rather, it’s participatory. It explores ‘the other’ – the people who live in the parts of Johannesburg that the average middle-class suburbanite wouldn’t dare step foot in, lest they’re taken out by a gang of Nigerians. Or poor whites. A production like this can very easily slip into the realm of poverty porn, but, Alex, who’s currently doing her drama PhD at UCT, somehow manages to flip the othering. I think, at least. By the end of the two hours, I’m left a little dazed, quite confused, and asking myself on a spaza-strewn pavement, ‘Who is looking at who?’
The production forms part of the main component of Alex’s PhD research, which is being done through the African Centre of Cities, an ‘urban think tank’ attached to the University of Cape Town, as well as through UCT’s drama department. Through her Izithombe 2094 production, Alex hopes to make theatre more participatory, as a way to discover the everyday in the city of Johannesburg.
“I wanted to work in Johannesburg, in either the CBD or one of the inner-city suburbs, and I settled eventually on Bertrams, Lorentzville and Judiths Paarl because they’re interesting mixed-use, mixed demographic areas, with lots of street life – the public spaces are really used,” she explains. “I felt like Hillbrow and Yeoville have had so many artistic interventions, and that’s not to say that Bertrams, Lorentzville and Judiths Paarl haven’t, but they’ve not been as visible and not as many. I also wanted a really specific, contained area for practical reasons, without too much sprawl.”
Alex started research for Izithombe 2094 (also known as #bertramsstoriesproject) in July last year, where she and her research assistant, Balestsi Tsatsi (who is a Market Theatre Laboratory graduate and also acts in the production) walked the grid of the area. They spotted four institutions: Bertrams Junior School, Gerald Fitzpatrick House (the local old aged-home), Bienvenu Refugee Shelter, and the Morris Freeman Recreation Centre, which has an after-care facility. They approached all four to do participatory drama workshops, with an end plan to create a piece of theatre.
“I wanted to use professional theatre-makers to help support and frame that, so I approached Toni Morkel [who I’ve written about before here] and Lindiwe Matshikiza, both of whom have lived in the area; both of them are theatre-makers rather than just actors, and both of them are interested in socially-engaged work and they have a vested interest in the area.”
Funding for Alex’s PhD came from the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, as well as from the National Arts Council. Together with Toni and Lindiwe, Alex started doing performance interventions with the four institutions to elicit responses, and slowly the three of them created a theatrical piece that was both site specific, and moved through the area.
“My idea had always been that it would be a walking tour, like a guided tour of the area with live participant performances along the way. Toni and Lindi’s characters reflect research that Baeletsi and I have done, and they represent the demographics of the area, like races and nationalities.”
It’s these characters that carry the audience through the production, and they also function as ‘tour guides’ – even though it may take you a while to figure out who’s acting, and who’s not. There’s Jean (played by Toni Morkel), who you’ll meet at the Gerald Fitzpatrick House; her mismatched, faded clothes speak of elderly white poverty that’s clinging onto a last strand of respectability; then there’s Sylvie (played by Lindiwe Matshikiza), a beautiful, high-heeled Congolese women who only speaks French, as she takes you past a group of Bertrams Junior schoolgirls dancing in front of a graffiti-scrawled wall, and clumps of informal traders (“Who are these whites… amatourists?” asks one of the spaza shop owners. His mouth clicks with disdain). The highlight is Battery (also played by Toni Morkel), a white mechanic smeared in black grease. Torque wrench in hand and flat-screen box on shoulder (“I’m just delivering it, I promise, man!”) he hurries you along a street that houses cross-eyed, pedigreed dogs and broken garden gnomes (“This isn’t a foken Sunday stroll, let’s move move move! Jissus, don’t stand on broken glass!”).
I ask Alex what she discovered in her research.
“A lot of things overlap; you start to see the same information comes up from different people. Things like a strong sense of community, and then paradoxes, like people saying it’s dangerous with lots of crime, but it’s lovely and it’s home. I also discovered a large focus on road accidents and cars driving fast in the street, drunkenness, drug abuse, violent crime. But then there’s also children playing soccer in public spaces. A lot of this sounds quite mundane, but what starts to emerge is the qualities and textures within that, what you see on the street, the greenness of the trees, the freedom to play in the streets, the mood: hopefully that’s something that the play captures. I wanted to start a dialogue with the people but also with the built environment itself, then engage audiences in a conversation about how it’s all represented, or has stuff been left out, and does any of it feel resonant?”
According to Alex, the emphasis of the production has always been on participation – of the audience, the actors, and the community itself – but, most importantly, this participation needs to be a way of eliciting the stories of the people who live there, and not telling the stories on their behalf.
“It’s a means of broadcasting a story,” explains Alex. “But the concern, and challenge, as a researcher is also that many people don’t really want to tell their stories, they’re puzzled as to why their stories need to be told; they’re puzzled by the ‘everydayness’ of it all.”
I ask her what was the pull to explore this run-down, mostly black, very poor, and ghettoised part of the city – bearing in mind that her position of privilege obviously comes into play.
“I’m fascinated with the other in all areas of my life. I am a 33-year-old white woman, with blonde, curly hair: I am what I am, and I’m interested in doing this kind of work. It is presumptuous, but where would I not be presumptuous? I understand that white privilege is a major thing that comes into play, but is that a reason to not do the work? These are hugely important considerations, and something that I’ve thought about: what right do I have to do this? But then, I’ve also come back to the alternative of not doing it. So do it going in with an awareness of it. I have and will continue to fuck up and to impose my white privilege just by living and being. The fucking up is in so many small ways, it happens whatever you do, you are in there as yourself, with a vulnerability and fallibility, and the admission of that is the only ethical stance that feels workable for me.”
Talking to Alex makes me question my own fascination with the other. What’s that all about, Ang? And where does one draw the line between the everyday and exoticism; poverty and porn; listening and looking? Throughout the piece, it does feel a little voyeuristic – this particular group consists of middle-class whites, myself included, and we clearly don’t belong in this suburb. We watch the performances of Toni, Lindiwe, and the Bertrams participants, but we also get a glimpse of ‘the other side’: we walk past people’s houses, look into their yards, buy loose cigarettes from their spaza shops, smell the smoke from their braais, and overhear their conversations in a multitude of languages. I keep thinking about how this would all play out if the production was called Izithombe 2021 – ‘Pictures of Bryanston’. For one, access to observe would be severely limited: thanks to high walls, electric fences, boomed-off areas. This is a world that’s all too familiar and insular and sterile, while Bertrams seems foreign and welcoming and alive. Why is that? Does poverty make a place more lively, community-orientated, and open? Are we intruding by doing this? Should we even be doing this?
“If I went back to Edenvale, where I grew up, and did this project, I’d still be other; if I went to my mother’s church I’d still be other,” adds Alex. “There’s nowhere where you’re not trespassing in some way. But sometimes you trespass in a way that’s productive, not just for you, but for everyone.”
Herein lies an important point – productive trespassing. Talking to Alex, I get the strong impression she’s made it a point of approaching this in a sensitive and considered way: listening; not talking; watching; not objectifying. It’s a very difficult balancing act, but I have to agree – if she opted to not tell these stories, based on the potential for it to be problematic, then it would be a great loss. Taking part in this production – and I say taking part because it is participatory, despite some of my discomfort – resulted in me asking myself many questions – which is what art should always do.
“I’m fascinated with ways of being, with ontology,” she concludes. “I like the idea behind [philosopher] Martin Buber’s I and Thou, which was about giving presence to the other, to what they’re saying, and who they are. The Thou rather than the You; I’m offering you my curiosity but also offering you a holding space for what you are. Hearing someone’s story but being co-present with them. It’s about difference and interaction. It’s an ethical dilemma we all face, constantly.”
Featured image courtesy Gail Scott Wilson