From the program of the South African Black ’77 Theater Project presenting the play “Survival.”
Featuring Dan Selaelo Maredi, Themba Ntinga, Seth Sibanda, David Fana Kekana and Peter Sephuma.
Produced by Jim Bertholf, John Higgins, Valerie Warburton and Mark Smith
August 16, 1976
One midnight during a clear cold winter, at the tip of Africa, in a small apartment on the edge of Johannesburg, seven young men assembled to shake hands on a pact which would drastically change the future of all involved. One theater director from Australia, five black South African actors, and one American professor.
In South Africa, even being together with blacks in the white suburb, late at night, after curfew, could mean immediate arrest and unlimited detention for all present, or a minimum of instant deportation for the foreigners.
There is no adequate description of the ultimate effects of South African political prisons. Many don’t survive “accidents and suicides”.
With agreements made in low voices, handshakes in the hallway and quiet farewells, the blacks boarded a battered truck bound for the sprawling black city of Soweto. The American prepared to depart for a flight up to Kenya, Zurich, London, over the Pole, to Los Angeles — Home.
That meeting was the beginning of an African theater project, with international implications which would only find its way into the United States, and onto the college campuses, if it survived the maze of government officials; union disputes; senator’s offices; the bureaus of immigration and labor; congressional offices in Chicago, Detroit, Maryland, Texas, and California; the Bureau of State Security in South Africa; special meeting in New York, the America Embassy in Johannesburg; midnight phone calls to London, to Johannesburg, New York, San Francisco, Henry Kissinger’s state department; calls to Pretoria, South Africa and the Pretoria government; calls to the American consulate and finally a college campus by the Pacific, 12,000 miles from Africa in Southern California.
The actors in this story compose the most important theater troupe to appear in the United States this year, or possibly any year. With personal experiences as profound and disturbing as Alex Haley’s “Roots”, but as current as the headlines from Soweto. Even on leaving the plane in Los Angeles they recoiled, as the cameras and bright lights flashed on. They thought they were being arrested.
Fear was the price they had to pay for being visible, for dramatizing their own lives, for inspiring black and whites alike, with hope through music, satire, chilling drama and lacerating comedy.
The possibility of getting this PARTICULAR group to the United States, was in question until literally a few hours before their plane took off from Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg. The day before their departure, they were arrested along with their Australian company manager John Higgins for taking photographs of their own homes and townships, and questioned about their plans in the United States. Their film was confiscated and a $50 fine was paid.
Departure was then moved up and arranged from the United States by Professor Bertholf. Tickets were wired, visas stamped, bags packed and a hurried trip to the airport arranged. Everyone held their breath and not until the drive down the San Diego freeway, from Los Angeles International Airport to Newport Beach, did anyone accept this it was all over. They were finally here.