Mhlanguli George walked the streets wondering what was happening in his neighbors’ backyards. “I would knock,” he says, “and I would hear a woman’s voice saying, ‘Coming!’ and I would wonder, what was going on back there?” His facial expressions communicate infectious curiosity. I get curious too—about him, about backyards, and about the production we’re going to see.
George is a South African theatre director in his 30s. Born at the end of apartheid, in a poor community, his parents were disappointed in his choice of profession because they hoped he’d pursue a career in which he could earn a living. “Of the 30 or so who were in my class in school (studying drama) only 3 or 4 are actually working in this field,” he tells us. Theatre isn’t an easy path for anyone in the world and I know that his parents would find camaraderie with many parents in the US. But within minutes of speaking with George, I can see that he’s not someone who would give up on his passions—and telling stories, through theatre, is his passion.
“The backyards choose me,” he says. “I walk around and then knock on a house and explain to the family that I do these productions and ask if I could use their backyard.”
On the longest night of the year in the southern hemisphere, a windy night for which rain was forecast, my family and I watched a play called, “Is he mad?” in a backyard in the Nyanga township of Cape Town. Lamla Mtsaluba, the brilliant actor, is an old friend of George’s. He portrays a man whose wife was killed in an accident, whose dog was poisoned, who is lonely and grieving and regretful of the affair he had which pushed his wife from their home. His monologue is punctuated by rants about the government, suggesting perhaps that politics also makes one crazy. At times, he stands only feet from us, speaking directly to us, making intense eye contact, breaking the fourth wall. It’s slightly uncomfortable, but the connection—the realness of it—is captivating.
The wind howls. Neighboring dogs bark. The family that lives in the house is also in the backyard—the children entranced by this “mad man,” the mother capturing video on her phone. I wonder if they’ve ever seen anything like this.
“There are no places to see theatre here in the townships,” George tells us afterwards. “So I’m bringing drama to the community.” He splits all of the profits from the production with the family that lives in the house and with the actor.
Resilience means that you face adversity and become stronger in the process. Resilience is thriving, not just surviving. Mhlanguli George seems to be thriving. I don’t know which specific challenges he’s faced in his life—but knowing that he was born during apartheid, and in a poor community, I can assume he’s faced a handful. The story that he tells of his pursuit of theatre is one of incredible focus—it’s almost as if he wore blinders as he pursued his passions, ignoring family and friends who disapproved of his choice of profession—but all the while, curious and playful and energized. This year he’s reached a new milestone—he was invited to share his work at the National Arts Festival, a prestigious recognition of his work. He dreams of writing a book about theatre in the backyard, and with his focus and brilliance, I can see it happening.
Good art makes you think and feel and learn about yourself and others. This was good art. And it’s art about a place and time. If you’re ever in Cape Town, this is my top recommendation for what to do. Coffeebeans Routes can take you there.
Theatre in the Backyard epitomizes how art cultivates resilience—for the creators of the art, perhaps for the community that experiences it, and for those who take it in. This experience made me feel tremendous hope about what can happen in South Africa, and perhaps the world, when we pursue our passions, explore creative ways to understand ourselves, and follow our curiosity. My curiosity brought me here and I am stronger because of it.