Platform for personal expression; South Africa's blacks turning to the stage

The spotlight moves to Mampane, revealing a face in anguish over the troubles of his black South African brothers. Slowly, he sings: ''How long are we going to keep running? we've been chased by the system all our lives some are in exile, some in prison can anyone call this justice, when they judge us by the color of our skin?''

As the play finishes, the audience of both whites and blacks rises to its feet and gives the actors a standing ovation.m

South Africa's blacks - denied the right to open political dissent - have found another platform for expression: the stage.

The scenes above, from ''For Better Not for Worse,'' written by a black South African, were playing here at the University of Massachusetts. But they could just as well have been on the stage in Durban, or Johannesburg, or Cape Town.

''The movement to raise black consciousness through our own theater began about 12 years ago,'' says Selaelo Maredi, a black playwright who has written or collaborated on more than 14 plays and won awards in both South Africa and the United States for his work. He is touring more than 40 US colleges and universities with his play ''For Better Not for Worse.''

Today, Maredi says, there are active black theaters in every major city in South Africa, presenting plays that seek to reveal the lives, struggles, and hopes of the blacks of South Africa. One of their principal aims: to dramatize the injustices of the government system of apartheid, or enforced racial separation. Another essential part of this theater, he says, has been the revival of traditional forms of African culture - poetry, storytelling, and music - which are often interwoven with the dialogue.

The plays are having an impact. According to Maredi, after many of the performances in South Africa ''both Afrikaner and English whites would come backstage, crying, and say, 'I didn't know it was so bad.' '' After a performance in Johannesburg, a white policeman approached him and told the playwright he was going to quit.

''Theater is an enormous force in South Africa at present,'' says Barney Simon, artistic director of the Market Theatre, a multiracial arts complex in Johannesburg.

Simon, a white South African, has been a leader in the development of multiracial theater for more than 20 years. He explains that until the late '70s , multiracial theater was illegal; it had to be shown in private homes or secretly in small halls. Today, he says, as long as a group has acquired proper government permits, it can present racially mixed shows to audiences of blacks, whites, and Coloreds (people of mixed race).

Simon is in the US with a production of ''Woza Albert,'' a play he wrote with two black actors. It is a powerful political and theatrical statement that among other things presupposes a second coming of Christ Jesus to South Africa's blacks, and it's been a popular and critical success worldwide. It attracted standing-room-only crowds in South Africa, then drew rave reviews in London, at the Edinburgh Festival, and in Munich. There are plans to bring the show to New York and Boston soon.

But the theater movement has persisted and is growing. Three years ago, says Maredi, the movement took an important step forward with the founding of FUBA (Federated Union of Black Artists), a black theater organization in Johannesburg that provides a performance center and school for aspiring black actors. Until that time, he says, theater in South Africa was largely managed and controlled by whites, and formal training for black actors was almost nonexistent.

Simon, who still lives in South Africa, acknowledges that plays that are highly critical of the government are being performed, often to overflow audiences. On the other hand, he says, other political plays have been banned and some black actors denied passports. When asked why the government did not suppress black theater uniformly, he replied, ''It's either a game, or a gross kind of ignorance.''

Another boon for the black theater movement has been the work of white South African playwright Athol Fugard, who is considered one of the world's leading active playwrights. Fugard's award-winning plays ''Sizwe Bansi Is Dead,'' ''A Lesson From Aloes,'' and ''Master Harold and the Boys'' share a common thread: They are powerful indictments of South Africa's apartheid system. ''Sizwe Bansi ,'' his first acclaimed play, is the product of his work with a multiracial theater group, the Serpent Players, in Port Elizabeth, and was written with two black actors, Winston Ntshona and John Kani.

In a recent talk at Harvard University, Fugard praised the development of black theater: ''They are breaking the conspiracy of silence about issues that affect them daily,'' he said. ''There is an almost uncontrolled excitement about their work right now - they are going through a period of apprenticeship, but it won't be long before they get off the ground and find a powerful voice of their own.''

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