Homeless actors perform ‘healing’ Shakespeare in a field

2014-12-15 12:45

A group of homeless men has found fame and acceptance in a rather unlikely place – the plays of William Shakespeare.

The ragtag band of actors has taken to the boards in a field in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, to perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“They haven’t had a lot of rehearsals, so give them your indulgence,” South African theatre stalwart Dorothy Ann Gould tells the audience of about 30.

The cast of 11 homeless men is performing on a small stage behind the Piza e Vino pizzeria, which is letting Gould’s acting company Johannesburg Awakening Minds (JAM) use its facilities free of charge.

They are putting on the mechanicals theme from the play, depicting Athenian manual labourers chosen to perform the play-within-a-play Pyramus and Thisbe at a wedding.

“Is all our company here?” asks Peter Quince, the carpenter, played by Charles Kunene (53), from KwaThema, near Springs, on the East Rand.

No sooner has the performance started than a thunderstorm moves in. The show goes on. Quince dwarfs Gould, as she shields him with a pink parasol. A handful of spectators makes a dash for cover.

“Shakespeare is a man for all seasons and all ages,” Shakespeare Society of South Africa representative Eleanor-Mary Cadell says later with fellow society members Lizzy Staughton and Hilary Semple.

She thought it was “a darn good effort”.

“Against all odds,” adds Semple.

Kunene wore a pin-striped suit jacket for the show.

“I must be honest. I wasn’t pleased with my performance. There were moments when I was a bit nervous, but most of all it was the rain that disturbed me. The storm. I felt that I did not do my best,” he says.

Kunene, who is retrenched with two grown daughters, has emerged as the group’s leader, says Gould.

“The guy who was the leader just got into the Market Theatre Laboratory.”

Thando Matodlana was chosen to study there from more than 100 applicants.

A friend had agreed to give him a bursary in remembrance of actor Kenneth Hendel and Golden Lions Sevens and Pirates rugby player Thulani Popoyi, who was stabbed to death in Melville in October, says Gould.

“We still need to raise the money for Thando [who sleeps in the park] to support himself and find a room next year.”

Gould started JAM in July 2012, working once a week with 18 homeless men and a woman in Hillbrow.

She recruited them at a soup kitchen at St George’s Anglican Church in Parktown after being asked to help improve people’s communication and social skills through drama training.

“I had encountered enough sad people at traffic lights myself to feel their desperation just to be ‘seen’ instead of ignored. I hoped to hear their stories in order to make sense of my own,” she says.

She wanted to let them feel they had the right to speak, to be seen, and to tell their stories in a cruel city. She says within weeks of starting voice, breathing, physical, creative writing and emotional release exercises, she felt their self-respect, dignity and humanity returning.

“Instead of begging at traffic lights they started reciting Shakespeare; they found that Macbeth and Titus were speaking about their pain and that the plays were huge receptacles that could hold all the emotions that they needed to release – the rage, the feelings of abandonment; they began to flex again their intellectual muscle, to debate, have opinions and to become a team that support each other and watch each other’s backs, not only on the streets, but on stage.”

Says Lwazi Mayeki: “Mama Dorothy came one day to the soup kitchen and that’s how it started.”

He plays organ mender Francis Flute, who has to pretend to be a girl.

“It’s not easy playing a girl, because I don’t know the mind of a girl, how it works.”

Also difficult was understanding Shakespeare’s use of language.

“Learning it has been an experience for me. Dorothy explains some of the words.”

He also takes his script to evening classes at the church.

JAM performed for the first time at Arts Alive in August 2013, at Space.com at the Johannesburg Theatre in November that year, and at PopArt, Arts on Main, that December. This year, JAM has performed for the Shakespeare Society of South Africa, on Classic FM, at Space.com and at the Msanzi International Culinary Festival. It plans to perform at Foxwood House, in Houghton, on January 17 and 18, and 24 and 25.

Stage manager Bradley Webb joined a month ago.

“He comes in from Diepkloof, goes to Melville Library, does odd jobs,” says Gould, who can give you chapter and verse on all of her charges.

He has also memorised the entire script and can stand in for any of the characters. His “Aunt Dorothy” is a “very remarkable human being”, he says. Webb plays Puck, and says acting has gone from being a “hobby” to being a “passion”.

Gould says some of her actors have been on the streets since the age of 10, “running away from shocking abuse”.

“They do not take drugs any more and always come to class looking their best. Where they wash I have no idea ... They are my sons and I long to keep them safe.”

She couldn’t do that for one member of the group, whom she names only as Tshepo. He was shot dead outside a hotel where he had managed to rent a room, she says.

Someone she has helped is Sibusiso Magubane, from Swaziland. He plays Nick Bottom, the weaver.

Gould says he got four distinctions in matric and a scholarship to the University of Johannesburg, but lost it when his first-year marks weren’t up to scratch.

“I’m still on the streets,” he says, hanging his head, but quickly adds that acting has given him confidence and skills.

He has been to several auditions and has already won a place in a television commercial – as a homeless person.

He’s hoping it will help him “upgrade my life, my lifestyle and everything”.

“This is what I love about drama – it’s healing,” says Gould.


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