ACCOMPLISHED Walmer Township playwright and actor Gift Buqa began his career in theatre 35 years ago, performing protest plays around the country during the height of apartheid. Now he is giving back to his community with the help of the Isithatha Theatre Trust.
Buqa, 52, grew up in the township and fell in love with the performing arts at 17. He got into it “by accident” and has not looked back since.
“I had a friend who was a guitar player and he introduced me to drama. He set me up with a guy who was doing a play in the township,” said Buqa.
His enthusiasm grew and he started acting around the country, usually under the radar.
“Apartheid laws prohibited black people from theatres so we had to find halls to perform our plays in.”
In 2005 Buqa and another actor and playwright, Phambili Ngcayisa, wrote and performed in Heugh Road Blues, a play about day labourers. Two years later they entered the play for the National Theatre competition at the Market Annex in Johannesburg, where they came second.
In 2008 they took another original play, Fore, about black golf caddies, to the competition, again finishing in the top 10.
Buqa got involved in teaching drama in 2007 when he met another Walmer resident, Sharon Rother, of Rother Swain Studios. Their meeting later led to the formation of the Isithatha Theatre Development team.
“We started chatting and talked about ‘what if we had a theatre’,” said Rother.
Rother, 49, saw Gift and Phambili’s talent and directed Heugh Road Blues at the Opera House for the 2008 One Act Play Festival.
This led to auditions by Buqa and Ngcayisa for the PE Shakespearean Festival at Mannville Theatre. In 2009 they were part of the casts for Romeo and Juliet among others.
Buqa was named the best performer at the 2010 Fugard Festival. Last year Buqa, Ngcayisa and Rother all won Showtime Awards and their Master Harold and the Boys won the Showtime Award for the best play of the year.
Isithatha’s vision is to develop a working and performing theatre in Walmer, which would house a resident group of cross-cultural playwrights and actors. A building in 9th Avenue has been identified.
Currently Isithatha has a youth theatre group in Gqebera and Buqa is directing a group of adult township actors. There are about 12 children and five adults. Rother holds drama classes for youth from different townships at the Opera House every Saturday.
“We try to identify talent,” said Rother. “We want to get these kids into something productive. We have the most amazing teenagers.”
Buqa also teaches drama to children, usually in a cold, abandoned room near the police station in the township. But he thrives in the role.
“These children keep me on my toes as they are very energetic. It has been enlightening teaching the kids. Their hunger for knowledge is tangible, I see it in their eyes. It is like therapy for me,” said Buqa. “I live for drama.”
Isithatha will host another Walmer Arts Festival early next year.