“BROADWAY is catching the echo of the applause in New Brighton,” Nelson Mandela Bay raised theatre icon John Kani said in an interview in the city a couple of years back.
Kani – who has rubbed shoulders on movie screens with legends such as Marlon Brando and Sir John Gielgud – was talking about the long-running success of Sizwe Banzi is Dead which he and New Brighton son Winston Ntshona were performing in a critically acclaimed revival.
But his words could well have applied to a vast quilt of artistic achievement in all genres. Nelson Mandela Bay performers, singers, musicians, dancers, fine artists, choreographers and directors have gone on to ply their craft at some of the most illustrious venues around the globe.
Along with the likes of Kani and Ntshona, the Bay was the literal “play”-ground of one of the world’s most prolific of stage crafters – Athol Fugard – and roots of this dynamic trio, who would forever change the face of South Africa’s performing arts, stretch back to the Serpent Players in New Brighton in the 1960s, the first serious black theatre troupe in the country.
Let’s not forget artists George Pemba, Alexander Podlashuc, Mary-Rose Dold and Fred Page.
NMMU art students have, in recent times, excelled in national competitions.
And last year multi-award winning actress Nomhle Nkonyeni received The Herald GM Citizen of the Year lifetime award for her contribution to the arts.
The city’s theatres also boast huge credentials. The Port Elizabeth Opera House – where Kani and Ntshona performed Sizwe Banzi in 2008 – is the oldest functioning theatre in Africa.
This is where it all began for Chariots of Fire and Star Trek: The First Contact movie star Alice Krige, who played the alluring Borg Queen in the latter. It was in the Opera House that Krige was directed by the late Helen Mann – another admired theatre figure – in a production of Romeo and Juliet when she was just a 14-year-old Collegiate High School pupil in 1969.
And it was Mann who, along with husband Bruce, was the force behind the creation of the Mannville Open-Air Theatre in St George’s Park.
The Fugard, Kani and Ntshona collaborations were groundbreaking in a time of fierce oppression – and they sent a message of the apartheid laws out to the world in a way the government of the day could not have imagined.
For example, Sizwe Banzi is Dead was included in the publication of the Best 10 Plays on Broadway (1975) and Masterpieces of the 20th Century.
It was also rated 59th on the Royal National Theatre’s most significant plays of the 20th Century, equal with Murder In the Cathedral by TS Eliot.
Apart from his “statement plays”, what made some of Fugard’s work so compelling was how apartheid was often the vaguest subtext in the everyday situations in which his diverse but ordinary characters found themselves.
There is also the next generation – among them the likes of Bay theatre personalities Monde Wani and Zamuxolo Mgoduka, who have performed overseas.
Choreographer Mgoduka, winner of the arts and culture category of the 2010 Citizen of the Year, always dreamed of going to Broadway and last year he achieved that goal when the dance group Uphondo Lwe Afrika took the production of Elephant there.
Broadway is indeed catching the echo of the applause in the Bay, as Kani noted.