A site-specific performance, ‘Breaths of Joburg’, uses a range of art forms to explore the nature of South Africa’s most complex metropolis, writes
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Joburg offerings Johannesburg speaks. The soul of the land is being voiced through the breaths of its streets and the stories of its inhabitants. The city’s complexities have inspired essays. Its politics and essence have been muses for exceptional artistic work ranging from Samthing Soweto’s Ebsuku EP and Lebo Mashile and Majola’s Moya album, to Vaya, Akin Omotoso’s film. More recently, the book Wake Up, This Is Joburg by writer and urban planner Tanya Zack and photographer Mark Lewis brings the spirit of Johannesburg to the fore. With a cautionary title that links itself to endearing nicknames of the city — like Jozi Maboneng or Johustleburg — the book is a collection of essays and portraits capturing the hopes and daily lives of residents. Adding to this creative and intellectual zeitgeist is Breaths of Joburg — a sitespecific theatre work for young audiences produced by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Arts and Culture and the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS) and created by director Jade Bowers, performers Lebo Mashile and Tina Redman, and musician Yogen Sullaphen, all working with student performers. The work is part of a bigger research project by theatre-maker, writer and academic Alex Halligey that makes connections between writing on the city and staging it in public spaces. It aims to explore the joys and difficulties of Johannesburg in all its complexity. Breaths of Joburg uses poetry, storytelling, movement and music, working from three pieces of short-form creative writing by Zandile Dube, Lerato Mahlangu and Teneal Naidoo — the winners of the Set in Joburg writing competition run by UJ Arts & Culture and JIAS in 2022. The performance, which ran for three days at the end of April, awakened the outside of the Windybrow Arts Centre and neighbouring Nugget and Pietersen streets out of their routines. Lured by the animation of the play, community members joined the audience which included arts practitioners, arts enthusiasts, students and media. The show starts with a cacophony of vignettes directed at randomly targeted audience members. The performers spew short slices of life metaphorically mirroring the pulse of the city and its simultaneous unfolding in different corners. Themes of poverty, rape, migrant living and survival, among others, colour these vignettes. The recitation games that black village and township children play are used as tools for the deep-seated political messages they carry. Beer crates become street salons that reflect the style of the city. The unifying narrative is centred around a “Johannesburg river” which gives to its community and is nurtured in return until the Europeans find gold. As a result, the poetic repetition of the tale about a woman who sells the moon helps to reflect the unchanging toil for survival that characterises the city with its dispossession and greed. Johannesburg is both the setting and the spiritual character. Organic sounds of the surrounding streets add a raw texture. The subversion of tackling serious issues playfully is a clever tool to attract the main target for such a work: young audiences. As a production, Breaths of Joburg is not yet fully cohesive, but it works because it has a strong narrative foundation and strong creative leaders in Bowers, Mashile and Redman. It’s the structure that needs refining. The potential for the project’s lifespan is where its transformative power lies. The project is also a collaborative effort between UJ, with Halligey as lead researcher, and Sweden’s Malmö University that hopes to connect “human, micro moments specific to the city of Joburg to both universities’ global networks of students, scholars, artists, art-lovers and civil society activists”. It evolved into its current form from Halligey’s PhD work which was initially a site-specific participatory theatre as public art project in the inner-city suburbs of Bertrams, Lorentzville and Judith’s Paarl. The culmination was a site-specific play modelled on a walking tour. The power in that inceptual work is captured in the documentary Izithombe 2094. In gathering stories and engaging the communities, there were moments of breaking barriers, encountering the other and dismantling fear of the other. In the same way, Breaths of Joburg has the potential to include and engage the communities it stages the work in (if the team hasn’t done so already) for real transformative impact. Conversations around the joys and difficulties of Johannesburg cannot happen without the voices of its communities. It’s as Halligey says of her PhD project: “Critical to the research is the relationship between space and people. It’s important that it stays grounded in the community.” Breaths of Joburg can be staged at different corners of the city as a yearly occurrence, if one were to imagine a life for it. It needs to live beyond this pilot staging. It is important work of great transformative potential.