South Africa Black ’77 Theater Project

stage03 16x9 1 scaled Survival

David Fana Kakana popped into my head echoing loudly followed by Dan, Themba, Seth and Peter where are you?

One question leads to another…

Through the airwaves, into the television, refractions of Soweto burst forth permeating our world. I was 20 years old and had a deepening friendship with Jim Bertholf, chair of the theater arts department at Orange Coast College.

In 1976 the capabilities for us all to search, see and connect on the internet was still being engineered. It didn’t yet exist, if you really wanted to see for yourself you had to get out of your chair, get up and go.

That’s what Jim did. He flew from Southern California to South Africa to see what was going on and how the theater was active in the current unrest.

Upon arriving at his friend, John Higgins’ place, many doors to the scene were opened including that of Workshop ’71 and the work of Mshengu.

After seeing the performance of “Survival” Jim presented a question to the actors.

Their yeses put everything in motion…

Jim landed back home at the same time I drove up his street. When I rolled down the window to welcome him back he leaned in with his heartfelt grin and asked if I wanted to help him produce a theater project from South Africa.

“Yes” was all I could think of to say. Another big yes came from Valerie.

These milestones shall never fade from memory. The course of lives were effected towards this moment in time we all find ourselves.

Asking once again, “how did we get here?”

This story starts where I left off, at the last performance of the South African Black ‘77 Theater Project, in the last scene of the play “Survival,” when my hands are on the levers ready for the final cues to dim the stage lights and bring up the house lights awakening the audience to their current reality…

stage02 scaled Survival

All [together]: They survive!

Themba: What’s more…

Fana: …they grow in numbers and self sufficiency.

Seth: The spirit lives even more fiercely.

Dan: In short…

All [together]: …they triumph!

Themba: And that’s another kind of struggle. A people survive by grimly holding on. But at the same time they achieve what their oppressors cannot help envying them for. The strength lies with the people, who carry with them in their lives the justification for the struggle – the victory that is…

All [togherher]: SURVIVAL!

Final Song: “We go for[ward]’ , ending with the actors marching fists raised, through the audience and out the theatre, singing.

We go for[ward]

   we will get the good things that

we go for[ward]

   things that every man on this earth

goes for[ward]

   go for the things that everyone alive can share

We go for[ward]

   we will get the sunshine when

we go for[ward]

   shining on our faces when

we go for[ward]

   air for all our breathing let’s

   go for the sun

   go for the air

   go for our share


Those questions, the yeses from each of us decades ago, and now a crazy collision of occurrences with Mshengu, Michele, Brandon and Valerie has ignited memories and searching though dusty boxes that had not been opened in decades.

F.Y.I.: “A Question of Survival” thought to be long lost, recently discovered video by David Fanning at Channel 50 KOCE-TV was aired February 3, 1977. This documents the arrival of the actors in Southern California and snippets of rehearsal preparing for the tour.

Playing up and down the west coast between Mexico and Canada performing in everything from professional theaters to school gymnasiums and hosting talks with the audiences, we lived a story well told… while we did much more than just survive.

66137B46 877B 4765 8074 B01F24091469 e1597286463850 Survival

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.

African Project artifacts scaled Survival
review SA 02 Survival
review SA 01 Survival
review SA 03 Survival
78BCFD94 7C6A 4C07 B008 7D8098C2FAD3 scaled Survival
21018420 7101 431E AFBB BB2904F05EB3 scaled Survival
A1F44408 8E2B 4055 B70F 242671A7BBF7 scaled Survival
D2FB3686 56E7 4386 BD56 CDBFC7C519AF scaled Survival
4BF151BA B812 4534 BF4C 617CF1A8BFDA scaled Survival
38EC9B66 C58F 4D18 BF9F 28A243948BE8 scaled Survival
4B3BF17C 5EF2 40B2 929F E4D45E9D4C62 scaled Survival
81478DA4 4161 45C6 8BEE 2D99CCB5017A scaled Survival
F60A48F8 8A1D 41B0 BC8F 8C4E27F5826B scaled Survival
939925F7 C204 4F48 9E95 F5E4E0496C6C scaled Survival
7C7B9A8E 0DEE 4F5C 95FB 6B36EE90A888 scaled Survival
3F2039A1 CCC4 4C6C BAC6 1627B4AA9D82 scaled Survival
African project poster Survival
exclamationface01 compressor Survival
IMG 7453 compressor Survival

Mark’s Myth is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License by Eleprocon