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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 223-252



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Theatre, Crime, and the Edgy City in Post-apartheid Johannesburg

Loren Kruger

[Figures]

Johannesburg is . . . not the only city . . . to have gone to the edge and looked over. It's just that, in Johannesburg, we do not get short, sharp glances. We are rubbed raw, face to face with something that most humans would prefer to avoid. 1

--M. Varder, "Reliving a Long Day's Journey into Jo'burg Night" (1998)

Think of Johannesburg. . . . South of Soweto, . . . to the border of Midrand in the north. The place looks like a kidney, like a sort of squashed kidney. . . . Think of the great cities of the world. Rome, Paris, Beijing, Buenos Aires, London, New York, Johannesburg! Johannesburg is the largest city in the world not built on a river! This is why we're mad! This is why the city is crazy! We need water! 2

--Love, Crime, and Johannesburg (1999)

Crime and money have been persistent themes of writing about Johannesburg since the 1890s, barely a decade after the city's founding in 1886, when Winston Churchill allegedly called the city "Monte Carlo on top of Sodom and Gomorrah." 3 Crime in the [End Page 223] city has inspired drama about Johannesburg, from Helena's Hope Ltd (1910), the gold-rush melodrama by actor-manager Stephen Black, via anti-apartheid plays about the struggles of newly arrived blacks, from Athol Fugard's No-Good Friday (1958) to Matsemela Manaka's Egoli (1979; lit: "Place of Gold"), to the potentially post-apartheid Love, Crime, and Johannesburg (1999), about crime and politics in the "new South Africa." Despite the lament of one of Nadine Gordimer's characters in the 1950s, that "Johannesburg has no genre of its own," variations on the crime story and its theatrical cousins, the melodrama and the gangster show, have been around since the beginning. 4 Nonetheless, as my first epigraph suggests, the disorder of the mining town at the turn of the last century pales before the mayhem that prevails in Johannesburg at the turn of this century. The end of apartheid has not brought peace to Africa's wealthiest city, but rather unleashed the lawlessness that plagued black township residents for decades on the wealthy (mostly white) population as well; a "lost generation" of youth with little education and no prospects has turned not only criminal but violent, matching theft and burglary with apparently gratuitous rape, torture and murder. 5

Geopathology, as Una Chaudhuri has it, "the problem of place--and of place as problem," colored apartheid-era Johannesburg, but has taken on a new intensity in the last decade, as the end of the anti-apartheid struggle has exposed in the sharp divisions between rich and poor, first and third world, North and South, an even more persistent segregation. 6 Where the city of Johannesburg provided the set for a range of anti-apartheid plays from Fugard's No-Good Friday (1958) through Matsamela Manaka's Egoli (Place of Gold; 1979) to the Market Theatre's Born in the RSA (1985), and the Junction Avenue Theatre Company's (JATC) Sophiatown (1986), the problem of Johannesburg, the transformation and (mostly) decline of built environment and intensely imagined place became in the 1990s the subject of the drama. The plays' treatment of this subject has been inconsistent, however, as they often return with some nostalgia to the Jim Comes to Jo'burg scenario of the naif in the city or the glamour of the gangster story. These scenarios are not new; both flourished in the 1950s, before the apartheid state destroyed Sophiatown, the last mixed suburb and intercultural bohemia before the liberalization of the late 1980s. Many more recent plays, from Sophiatown to Bloke (1994), a musical based on Sophiatown writer and later exile, Bloke Modisane, allude not only to Sophiatown's vital but dangerous mix of energy and lawlessness, but also to the revival of the idea of Sophiatown in the 1980s, when the [End Page 224] bohemia of the 1950s seemed to offer a model for future integration. 7...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-332X
Print ISSN
0192-2882
Pages
pp. 223-252
Launched on MUSE
2001-05-01
Open Access
No
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