PRINT March 1991


Township Fever

THE VILLAGE VOICE, democratic organ of the New York white guilty conscience, showed its usual resourcefulness in a headline it ran last December to kick off an article on the recent musical by the South African playwright, composer, and director Mbongeni Ngema. In a malevolent twist on the production’s name, Township Fever became “Broadway Fever”—telling the magazine’s readers, even before they had read the article, that the most relevant feature of this new work was its author’s desire to repeat the global commercial success of his 1988 musical Sarafina!. For Ngema, the article’s subtitle continued, “freedom is big business.” And the essay itself, by Beth Coleman, pointed out that although the performance was to be presented first at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (lately a pale temple of low-risk, unadventurous experiment), it was intended to move on, like Sarafina!, to a Broadway theater.1

For the Voice, apparently, the whole thing was shameful—a sort of surrender, one of the many now in process, to a capitalism ever more triumphant and omnivorous and ever less vulnerable to criticism. To see this exemplified you had only to look at Ngema’s development from a small format (two performers for Woza Albert!, 1981, five for Asinamali, 1987), with its promise of uncompromised purity, to the big-and-expensive-is-beautiful trap of Township fever, which cost about $1 million, and called for a company, including actors, singers, musicians, and technicians, that ran to some 80 people.

Let us suppose, just for a moment, that Ngema’s goals were exclusively economic. We would still have to clarify two questions, neither of them simple, and neither of them reducible to blasts of ideology and guilt.

Township Fever, like Ngema’s earlier plays, was the “militant tale” of a real event. In 1987, five hundred blacks employed by the South African state railway went on strike to defend the job of a colleague who had been accused of mishandling a small sum—about $20—of company cash. The protest spread like an oil slick, finally involving some 22 thousand workers of color and becoming a battle, not just between blacks and whites, but also between blocks and blacks (some of whom worked as scabs, betraying the common cause). There were physical casualties when black strikebreakers were attacked by other blacks, and there were government reprisals—several striking workers were arrested as scapegoats, accused of violence, and condemned to death.

Township Fever treated this main event alongside a series of subplots, turning the musical into a sort of multilayered fresco of the contradictions defining a block South African community today. There was a love story, pitting the needs of a personal, private relationship against the worker’s involvement in a public, collective cause; a betrayal—Jazz, the protagonist, was denounced to the police by his best friend; and conflicts and petty jealousies between clans. Above all there was the individuation of a variety of personalities, all different from each other, illustrating clearly the degree of abstraction in theories and claims of black unity. Whereas in Sarafina!, then, the conflict was simple—blacks versus whites and the evils of apartheid—in Township Fever Ngema’s analysis was more subtle and more complex. And the presentation of this complexity came through a clever treatment of the genre of the musical, and through a theatrical maturity in which this large-scale production was the logical expansion of the smaller, earlier ones.

Furthermore, in Township Fever Ngema was trying to find an audience, or to create one, that would not only act as a mirror, reflecting and reinforcing the action onstage, but could also find itself reflected there. It’s true that the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s public is predominantly white. But Township Fever, explicitly and in some ways aggressively, addressed an audience that doesn’t seem to go to the theater much: the black public in the past more likely to attend religious services, the movies, and television than to push into the white zone of big business. With a few partial exceptions (Lee Breuer’s Gospel at Colonus, at BAM in 1984, and later on Broadway; Africa Oyé, at City Center in 1988), the mainstream theater doesn’t seem to reach many black viewers. All that expensive advertising is aimed elsewhere. It is interesting, then, that the ad campaign for Township Fever was minimal, ordinarily a guarantee of commercial failure (and indeed the show did not reach Broadway, despite the Voice’s fears, but closed in mid January, after a little over a month). Whether by choice or by necessity, it was as though the channels of publicity for Ngema’s musical were informal and word-of-mouth, which are predictably unpredictable. As within an integral community (and the township, in some fashion, is a metaphor for this), expensive ads in the press (including The Village Voice) were replaced by posters in black churches. This was a self-segregated circuit, peculiarly efficient not only in delivering the message but in seeing that it reached the right people.

Township Fever was a potent and beautiful work, and the recent production of it (a collaboration between BAM and Lincoln Center Theater) put the increasingly slick, high-tech, big-money artificiality of the current made-in-the-USA musical to shame. In the relationship between American and African blacks, the play functioned as a kind of Möbius strip, in which what is over there is continuous with what is over here, and matters just as much. The work’s success came not only from its syncretic music (which was, however, extraordinary) and its cultural reciprocity. Ngema’s play seemed aimed at putting together what has been separated, not just to serve as an alternative voice, and to “enlighten” one’s conscience, but to restore historical sense, roots, and continuity to black Americans, and to expand the issues of apartheid and of organized political conflict beyond the borders of South Africa.

Maria Nadotti is a writer who lives in Rome and New York.


1. See Beth Coleman, “Broadway Fever,” The Village Voice, New York, 11 December 1990, pp. 43–44.