REVIEW: Keeping play and art alive in the city

The exceptional childlike fusion of art forms enabled the audience to have encounters with our material conditions through art.   

Created by the renowned Jade Bowers (director), Lebo Mashile, Tina Redman (performers) and Yogen Sullaphen (musician), the site-staged work took to Nugget Street outside the Windybrow Arts Centre in Hillbrow from April 20 till April 22, 2023. The theatre work was produced by the University of Johannesburg Arts and Culture division and the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS), and aimed at young audiences although with a broader appeal to people of all ages.  

Bowers, Mashile, Redman and UJ Arts and Culture students created childhood experiences of living in Johannesburg with all their innocence, naivety and boundless play. 

In a press release, UJ Arts and Culture said that Breaths of Joburg was part of a “larger research project that considered creative writing and site-specific theatre as tools for engaging urban publics in dialogue about every day, ground-up, place-making in city spaces”.

Lead researcher Alex Halligey told Wits Vuvuzela that a “smaller model of the research project asks the questions of how we use creative arts, how you can see something in the city and write a poem about it”.  

The Windybrow Arts Centre mostly draws in young people coming from school who use the centre as a place of play and diversion from the stresses of living in the city. Promoting access to art for everyone, Breaths of Joburg enabled the audience to have encounters with our material conditions through art.  

The performances, which were outside the arts centre, attracted children coming from school, students and adults, who lined the wall fence, settled on the pavement and on the theatre’s steps that lead to the street to resemble a theatre in the round.  

Using short and immersive acts, the actors took the audience to a Johannesburg familiar to me – from late night encounters to the vibrant economy of the city run by street vendors, hairdressers and taxi drivers who can take you almost anywhere in the city. 

This Johannesburg is Sindi’s and Babes’ world, two little girls played by Mashile and Redman respectively. The production used plastic beer crates as props and the performers’ creativity to create this world and the characters’ transition from childhood to adulthood. 

Babes (Tina Redman) and Sindi (Lebo Mashile) perform for an audience of schoolchildren at Windybrow Arts Centre. Photo: Mbalenhle Dlamini

“The show is about them (Sindi and Babes) travelling through the city. They want to learn how to make money, and we are those adults,” Redman told Wits Vuvuzela.

The actors had tough conversations with the audience as they explored themes that could be deemed complicated for young children to digest such as crime, death and sex work. However, Redman and Mashile and the student actors gained the young children’s attention with animated singing, dancing and hand-clapping games. 

Mashile captured the audience with her spirited spoken-word performance while the rest of the cast huddled quietly around her, moving in ways that symbolised air and a flowing river. She spoke about how Johannesburg was land that had rivers and fed its people before “they” (colonialists) “discovered” gold. It was an effortless transition of the child into the world of adults that they were trying to convey. 

After the three-day run at the Windybrow Arts Centre, Halligey said, “We are looking for funding to do Breaths of Joburg again and opportunities to do projects that are similar to what we did with Breaths of Joburg.”

Vuvu rating: 9/10

FEATURED IMAGE: Babes plays a monster chasing Sindi around the streets of Joburg. Photo: Mbalenhle Dlamini

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