One of my most treasured memories was when I went to watch Grease at Artscape Theatre. It was the first professional musical I had seen live and I was mesmorised from beginning to end. My sister and I were gifted tickets and we had some seriously good seats, about four rows from the front. It was an experience I would never forget. But one thing that was very obvious to us was that we were one of a few people of colour in the theatre, my sister even remarked that she almost wants to wave at the others so we can show solidarity.
This week, years after that Grease night I was reminded of it when I went to watch Hairspray at Artscape. Performed by the community theatre group, the Pinelands Players, Hairspray is an brilliant example of community theatre done right. The evening I went, the cast was mostly made up of the understudies, but you would never say. It was at times, rough around the edges in the endearing way that community theatre is but the cast and crew did an excellent job of singing their heart out, dancing, and getting the message of the important musical out.
For those that don’t know, Hairspray is the story of Tracy Turnblad who auditions to dance on The Corny Collins Show in 1960’s Baltimore. She becomes a sensation who pushes boundaries as she is plus sized and pushes for racial integration on the popular dancing show. If you have seen the 2007 film with Nikki Blonsky and John Travolta you would know what I’m talking about.
The musical itself as strong racial themes and asks uncomfortable questions while still being upbeat. And once again, I was reminded about how white our theatre audiences still are, when they would make jokes and only the few people of colour in the audience laughed. There was an uncomfortable air in the theatre, segregation wasn’t that long ago for the audience and still now with issues such as the Clifton Beach Saga and many many other incidents, there are still many areas and places within Cape Town that still feel very segregated if not by law then by the very real social politics that still exist in this city.
There is a scene where Corny Collins says “integration is the new frontier” and Velma von Tussle responds with, “Not in Baltimore” and “and Cape Town” could almost be tacked on the end of that sentence. But if the few laughs taught me anything is that theatre desperately needs an overhaul, some desperate integration. District Six and Kat and the Kings made waves decades ago, and we have seen similar responses for Aunty Merle’s Musical and Langarm but we have to create more of a theatre going culture around our people. Tell more of our stories, cast our people, make tickets affordable, promote the shows among our people.
What Hamilton did for U.S. theatre goers was nothing short of amazing. Here’s not to say that Broadway was struggling, but Hamilton with its’ story of a American Founding Father with a diverse cast and set to hip hop music brought a whole new audience to theatre, took a story that people thought they knew and changed the marketing and the depiction of it. South Africa needs a Hamilton.
Hairspray also truly depicted the importance of supporting community theatre, most of the cast and crew were volunteers, they had a tight budget, and had to collaborate to create this masterpiece but they put on a show that was extremely professional and well worth the stage they performed on. Laura Bosman, the chairperson of P₂ Productions, wrote that the group were in danger of closing down but because they fought for it, they were able to carry on performing. Some dedication and passion is worth rewarding, and if you love good theatre, a live performance and a show worth checking out, see what’s playing at your local theatre.
If you want to catch Hairspray however, it will be performed at Artscape Theatre until 16 February, you can buy tickets here