My nine-year-old nephew recently performed in the Cape Town Opera’s production of Cinderella/Cendrillon at the Artscape Theatre Centre in Cape Town in the July school holidays. I am very proud of this young boy who has wanted to be on the stage since he was about two years old and pinched his grandmothers’ scarves to make flowing capes as he imagined himself the hero of his own story. He was head over heels in love with Elsa and Anna from Frozen, the Disney movie released in 2013, the year that he was born. Watching a photo shoot on the steps outside the theatre recently, I was struck by the diversity of the group of little garden fairies and mice, even more so when I watched the show with principals from a variety of backgrounds representative of all South Africa’s people.
I was nine years old, the same age as my nephew now, when The Artscape Theatre Centre, now housing the Cape Town Opera, City Ballet and the Philharmonic Orchestra, was opened in 1971 in the city centre. Originally named the Nico Malan Centre Complex, after the former National Party administrator of the Cape Province, it was opened as part of the festival to celebrate the tenth anniversary of South Africa becoming a republic. [The vote for the Union of South Africa (a self-governing protectorate of the British Empire) to become a republic was held in a whites-only referendum in 1960.]
The theatre was opened amid controversy as it was reserved for the use of “whites” only. At the time, it was programmed and managed by the Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB), which focused on the orchestra, opera, ballet, and drama, promoting the performing arts for “whites”. It was generously subsidised by the state and became an apartheid showpiece and a symbol of cultural apartheid since “blacks” were banned both from attending shows and performing on stage.
After enormous pressure, it became the first South African theatre in 1975 that the apartheid government, through a permit system, quietly allowed all “races” to enter. A few years later, in March 1978 the then Nationalist government abolished the legislation that barred “mixed race” audiences in theatres and “mixed race” casts in productions, but many people of colour continued to boycott the theatre. In March 1999, four years after our first democratic elections, CAPAB was renamed and relaunched as Artscape with a much-reduced government subsidy; the poor support for the arts is perhaps a topic for another piece.
Artscape today prides itself on being a vibrant, multifunctional creative arts centre, welcoming different art genres (including indigenous art forms and jazz) and people from all walks of life. Conversations about the equality of women, children, and persons with disabilities have been given a platform, and the Centre hosts regular community productions as well as education and training programmes. In short, it has gone a long towards opening the doors of learning and culture to especially the youth and the historically marginalised.
As Artscape CEO, Marlene le Roux, herself a woman of colour, living with disability, observed in an interview in 2021, the 50th anniversary of the theatre:
“We have come a long way from the days when playwright Adam Small could not attend the premiere of his own play, Kanna hy kô Hystoe; when the actors were painted brown, and security police were in the house while protesters were outside.”
Adam Small, born in 1936, was a writer and academic of Indian and slave heritage from the same rural town that Le Roux hails from; he is known for writing in the Cape vernacular Afrikaans.
Reflecting on the history of institutions like the Artscape theatre inevitably leads us to wonder what could have been, and where we could have been as a country if all its citizens had been treated equally with access to equal opportunities. So many people were unable to become performers or further their careers because of senseless racist policies and legislation. In spite of the apartheid government making it almost impossible for the oppressed to perform freely and to advance in their chosen areas, people continued to express themselves through the arts — music, dance, and performance. Many overcame tremendous odds to succeed and often that meant leaving their families, friends and country and going into exile to North America, Australia or the United Kingdom. This history demonstrates a resilience that simultaneously provides a record of the practices of freedom that attest to our humanity, in defiance of a government that was intent on othering us. In the absence of formal records, these experiences provide an archive of how people survived an oppressive past.
For just under two hours, we had a glimpse of what the world could be — where it didn’t matter what colour the prince was or what ethnicity the fairy godmother was or where Cinderella came from — the possibility that a world comfortable in its diversity was more than a fairytale. And all the budding actors in the audience could imagine themselves on that stage someday. After all, representation matters.