The drama ends, the actors freeze, and one after another, the actors deliver their final words. A young man with red eyes shouts his line, “Do you or someone you know have a drinking problem?”
You might think he’s acting. But today it’s more than a show.
Sipho came to the performance drunk today. (I’ve protected his real name.) The director was furious, and told him so.
Sipho is part of a 10-member drama group that writes and performs dramas on some of the toughest issues South Africans face today—domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, HIV and AIDS.
Emily Stockhill, a white South-African woman in her late twenties, recruited and facilitates this drama group as a project for her graduate studies in drama. She explained to me her fascination with township drama.
Township dramas sprang up in the poorest segregated areas of South Africa during apartheid over two decades ago. The performers mix singing, skits, and motivational speeches to voice their frustrations and call audiences to action. Stockhill sees the culture here as naturally performance oriented, and drama as a perfect communication medium. But as apartheid faded out, so did what little funding existed for small dramas, along with the motivation that drove them. In recent years massive commercial drama has come to South Africa, but Emily sees this as the ultimate irony leaving the talented lower classes without performances in their budget.
These youth charge 25 cents for admission. They sell popcorn and Styrofoam cups of juice, and take any offer they get to perform at schools or community groups. Including some generous donations, they made about $80 per person for their first round of performances. It’s small pay when you divide it over ten hours of rehearsals per week, but for a group of young high-school graduates, none with more than part-time employment, it’s a start.
This group already knows about HIV, poverty, abuse and any other hardship. That’s why they’re warning their peers. What they don’t have is a way to pull themselves out of poverty, which is where Emily and I paired up. As part of a youth-empowerment organization I volunteered for, I began meeting the group for two hours a week to discuss personal finance, resumé writing, marketing, computing, perseverance and other topics that would drive them toward life goals.
Sipho was the guy in the class I could never read. He would mumble things in Zulu and the others would glare at him, drop their mouths open, or hide their smiles. Then I would ask him to translate or repeat slowly, and he would insist he couldn’t. Or sometimes he would look me in the eye and say it straight. Once when we were listing their goals in life, he mumbled something in Zulu. I asked him to translate, and he looked me in the eye and half-shouted, “I said I wanted to be a cook!”
Everybody laughed, so I smiled too, figuring he was sick of the activity and just making a joke. Sipho, a big toothless boxer-type with bloodshot eyes, in a kitchen? Sure, that’s funny.
He grabbed the table and nearly jumped out of his chair. “I’m serious. You don’t believe me? Shut up you guys,” he screamed. The class shut up. I nodded, as encouraging as I could manage.
“I want to be a chef,” he said more calmly. “And I already run a carpentry business, and I want to get more clients.”
After class I made a point of speaking with him. I told him about the guy I know about his age who just got a scholarship for one of the best chef schools in the country. I asked him about his carpentry business.
“I build all kinds of things—me and five guys.” His face was intense, and I sensed his pride. He asked if I knew anyone with a pickup truck who could transport some samples of his work to a school in the hope of getting an order to build desks.
About this time I watched the group’s first performance. Sipho was incredible—he stole the show. He opened the play as an auctioneer in a mock auction. The women in the group parade across the stage, and it quickly becomes clear that he is auctioning off women to the highest bidder—and the bidders he creates are the members of the audience. The process is made even more sickening by the fact that the group performs in a building that doubles as a cattle auction rink.
Half way through the play, Sipho reappears as a new character, this time an older drunk man who pays a young woman to sleep with him, then goes home to abuse his wife. He marches through the audience babbling, convincing us his world is real.
And it is real. The friend I came with left the minute the play closed, and I found her in my car crying. “It’s just so true,” she revealed.
Later, I interviewed Sipho along with his friend Musa. I asked them what stands out in the drama as most relevant to their own lives. “The auction,” Sipho quickly responded. “I was a player who sleeps around, with no condoms. You know, this thing of auctioning women for money like cattle, this is still happening.”
Musa jumped in with his own confessions. “My problem is drinking. I drink like hell. If I have money, I drink. If I have problems, it drives me to drink and I don’t care,” he said.
The two friends know each other’s stories, down to the last performance when Sipho showed up wasted. “I was a drug dealer, alcoholic, tsotsi (gangster),” Sipho admitted. “The problem here is there’s no jobs. That’s why people are doing drugs, robbing, abusing. When you’re hungry, you become angry.”
One young man shakes his head when I ask him to describe his home. “My family? All I can say is, they drive me to drink.”
It’s a scenario similar to what Sipho and the other actors paint in their drama. A man goes home to whining children and a kitchen with no food. His wife berates him as a no-good do-nothing. The man has no answers, no way to describe his own matching frustration, so he storms out, straight to the bar that will give him a drink on credit and the men who understand his plight.
I’m impressed at their honesty, and tell them so. They tell me this is part of the reason they joined the drama group. “Me, I was doing nothing,” said Sipho. “I needed something to keep me busy. And I want to stay out of trouble.”
When I interviewed Emily, she was very curious about their answers. “Alcohol is a big problem,” she confirmed. This weekend she has arranged a two day workshop with a top South African director. The group spent half an hour arguing about the rule she laid down: There would be no booze on the overnight trip. “They have this chance of a lifetime,” she fumed, “and they want to get drunk.”
Her anger was so strong she struggled for words. She cares about these people, and she wishes she saw more progress. “But still, I say even if [these rehearsals] are two hours of their life not spent drinking alcohol, great.”
She does point out that for the past two weeks every member has attended every single day. Their commitment in itself is a success, and the rest comes slowly. “There’s no quick fix. Sometimes we go five steps forward, ten steps back.”
And according to Sipho, being a part of this group means some large forward steps. “The people in this group will know if I lie to them,” Sipho said. “Now I wake up in the morning, and I know I’ll come here.” The gaps of missing teeth show as a smile sneaks into his tough-guy expression. “It’s like these people are my family. They support me. I feel love here.”