Vibrant shack theatre project

Cofimvaba-born Mandisi Sindo, 28, says he is the artistic director of “the only shack theatre in the history of SA”.

This is a grand statement, and today he might just be right.

Sindo is indeed sitting in the most amazing theatre. The Makukhane Art Room has been hammered and cemented and wired together in the heart of Cape Town’s shackland.

And a cool-looking theatre it is with its new acting boards, side boards, curtains, functional loos, a laptop and wifi – all provided by the Cape Town Fringe (CTF) – and it is here to stay.

Although the lights and other theatre equipment currently in use is for the two-week CTF, which ends October 8.

Its 60 plastic chairs may look utilitarian, but they are actually a lot better than the postcard-sized bank cushions on cold, hard metal at many National Arts Festival venues in Grahamstown.

But clearly this venue needs more. It will get some from the Fugard and from Electrosonic, which have R230 000 worth of stage equipment, dimmers, racks, lights and other gear ready to deliver, says Mandisi.

The Makukhane Art Room won a Fleur du Cap award for innovation last year. But this is all small fry compared to the next delivery; Sindo needs R5-million to build a formal theatre complex just right.

It sounds fantastic and the amount not totally beyond the reach of those at the centre who have the resources.

In our interview, we do a lot of traversing from the outer world of Khayelitsha to the urban centre of corporations and government. It’s a love-hate thing.

While he klaps the big players, he also seems to have a knack for pulling in the resources. And why not!

Sindo is a buff guy with biceps and a barrel chest that produces a deep, gritty voice, and he has a great smile. He gets energised and gives it to you.

I want to pump my fist and shout “Arrr!” and give him a big bear hug, neither of which would be appropriate.

His place is a fairly shipshape oasis of creativity carved out of a Sahara of shacks. He says the centre is home to hundreds of youths who heed the call of the sound decks bouncing off the big green floor canvas, and the many arts and culture activities on offer which infect, infuse and enthuse this space.

He needs all this energy to keep the shack arts centre on a roll.

He shows me a full-on box theatre, a library, a props room holding township movie set pieces, and more in this lo-o-o-ng shack, which has just grown, extending further and further as the community gets more involved in filling the air with local art and culture.

His programme planner is a large piece of packaging board making up the wall behind his table. The board has been ruled into what looks like 362 blocks, some filled in with koki – Makukhanye’s programme of arts.

Makukhanye was established in 2007 and its first artistic director was Thando Mpengezi.

Last year, Sindo, one of its earliest supporters, who started out as a 17-year-old street performer, returned home academically sharpened, graduated, and ready to put it all together right here, in the toughest environment, but one which is also rich with culture, raw talent and energy.

He was an Umagaliso (the miracle) Primary School kid, in Khayelitsha fresh out of Cofimvaba, when artist Zimasa May and the Ikwhezi Theatre came to the school and performed.

“What’s this!” thought the young Mandisi. “What is this thing theatre?”

In the current weeks the venue’s CTF programme will see up to 100 artists performing in 22 shows, 16 of them devised in this space, and six coming in from the CTF.

The programme will reverberate through the neighbourhood. Music, poetry, theatre, bars, beats, and rap – ikasi style, formal style and much of it Makukhanye, Khayelitsha style.

Mandisi got his diploma from UCT’s drama department starting in 2008, where he honed his mind with Jerzy Grotowski’s poor theatre, Bertolt Brecht’s political theatre and Antonin Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, where “artists must crawl and scream” as they heal.

He may have been mentored by performer and UCT lecturer Sabata Sesiwu, but it was all aimed at developing arts straight out of the shanty-sided alleyways of Khayelitsha.

After working in the city, getting a hip job as the artistic director of the Infecting the City programme in 2001, Mandisi said he nonetheless never stopped feeling like “an animal going still just before the slaughter. Someone always had a knife to put me down.”

He returned to Khayelitsha last year. “I said I will stay here. I will make work here. I will take no other jobs.”

He talks about building a programme which now has 30 young unemployed Khayelitsha creatives who are trained at the centre from 9am to 4pm. From 4pm to 7pm there is the after-school programme where 60 new artists work at music, traditional dance, poetry – all of it dedicated to finding and rediscovering their identity and embracing it.

“They need to know that there is a theatre in the community which is accessible to them.”

He had a dream in 2011. “I saw myself running a theatre right here.”

Working in the shacklands, where washing hangs on fences and children play in dusty spaces inches from the stage entrance door, has been hard.

But he is unrepentant. “I do not beg to be liked. I speak truth. We have no resources.”

If he is getting stuff now, it is because he fought for it, raising his critical voice on Facebook, prodding, pushing and agitating for theatre to shift out of Rosebank and the city bowl, to invest resources out where dust and zinc and electrical wiring and people, many people, conglomerate into a hard, uncompromising cultural cement.

Mandisi talks about calling in the CTF to meet with black artists. “I called a meeting and we mandated CTF to look at the structure of CTF so we can have all-year-round activity to bring in audiences so artists can get money.”

He’s pleased with what he got so far, but feels they have already have a big programme going, bigger by far than anything CTF can offer.

He speaks of the same number of shows going through the venue on Nelson Mandela Day, and of programmes run by women directors, and even a “double-bill” where, for the price of one ticket a theatre-goer could get to as many as four shows in a day.

On the day I went, the show that was advertised was not on – some paffle about programming and late advertising – but I got a great interview with the man himself. If the programme shifts and stretches you go with it, because that is how it is here – elastic and bouncy. Hit it right and you will have your world turned delightfully upside down. This is going to be a theatre experience like no other.

You will be dancing on the brightest, sharpest edge of South African art and life. I look forward to it.

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