THREE living legends, a revamped landmark and a stained glass window made history yesterday when the Port Elizabeth Opera House opened its doors after months of renovations.
Port Elizabeth theatre stalwarts and the only three Africans on the continent to win the prestigious Tony Award – Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona – came together for the unveiling of a stained glass window depicting their faces in the foyer of the new Nelson Mandela Bay Theatre Complex.
“I haven’t seen Winston for a number of years, Athol for even more years,” Kani said while joking that they were meeting together “coming from different old age homes”.
Forty years ago, the trio were nominated for the best play Tony Award, for their co-written play The Island. Kani and Ntshona walked away with best actor awards for The Island and Sizwe Banzi is Dead.
Fugard was later award a Lifetime Tony in 2011 for his contribution to theatre.
Now the three have been honoured and immortalised for their contribution to the arts through David Manning’s glass impression of them at the top of the grand staircase in the foyer of the new complex.
Kani said he felt humbled to be back in Port Elizabeth and at the Opera House.
“This is a beautiful and legendary Victorian theatre.
“The people of Port Elizabeth don’t know what they have here; it is on a par when compared to European theatres,” Kani said.
In the 1960s Kani, Fugard and Ntshona were considered three young revolutionaries and would “shoot words and ideas” to critique the government of the time and society in general.
“We loved our country, but we hated what was happening,” lamented Fugard.
According to Kani, the trio used art “as part of the weapons to liberate the country”.
For Fugard the Opera House brought back memories of his childhood and he reminisced about his first theatre performance.
“I was seven or eight when I sang here and my sister tap-danced,” he said.
“[It is] unbelievable, wonderful to think the theatre has a new life [and] can flourish in the mix of cultures,” said Fugard.
Reiterating Fugard’s words, Ntshona said the theatre “reflects history of not only the arts but also the social situation”.
Ntshona said he felt appreciation for what the new space was doing and that the arts thrived on communication, which according to him was the key to life.
“Artists are masters at discovering what society is, [they are] prophets of society,” he said.
After the unveiling of the stained glass window, Fugard said he felt “humbled and overwhelmed with gratitude, coming from such humble beginnings, with such celebrations”.
Kani said he was very grateful for the honour and would always consider Port Elizabeth his home.
“I have been in Johannesburg for over 30 years but I am still from PE and it will always be my home,” said Kani.
“In a beautiful way they (Kani and Fugard) have said it all … [the] truth is it [the stained glass window] is placed in a prominent position and that means a great deal to all of us,” Ntshona said.
Eastern Cape MEC for sport, recreation, arts and culture Dr Pemmy Majodina said she would like to encourage young artists “to be inspired by these legends (Fugard, Kani and Ntshona)”.
“Artists had an important role during apartheid, fighting for freedom … and [we are here] to celebrate the lives of our legends and stalwarts.
“This space (the Nelson Mandela Bay Theatre Complex) will be a place where people and communities’ lives will change,” she said.
Manning added: “In our profitdriven society we make or build so little of lasting beauty these days, we are glad […] that we could make a work of art to suit the additions and restoration of the Opera House.”
The official reopening of the facility was celebrated last night with an extravagant concert featuring Port Elizabeth-born artists performing with the Eastern Cape Philharmonic Orchestra.
This event was preceded by a striking and well-choreographed street theatre performance hosted virtually on the Opera House’s doorstep.
The captivating act took the large, appreciative audience through a string of South African tragedies.
This story appeared in Weekend Post on Saturday, 21 November, 2015 e-Edition