“A Pinpoint of Light in the Distance that Keeps Us from Despair”

The creation of Isithatha Theatre began with the original production of “Heugh Rd. Blues.” This was about day labourers and was produced by Lingatshoni Theatre at the Barn in 2005. Two of the actors and playwrights, Gift Buqa and Phambili Ngcayisa, wrote and acted in the play.

This led to the “Heugh Rd. Blues’” acting team entering the National Theatre competition at the Market Theatre Annex in Jo’Burg. They came in second. Later, they took another original play “Fore” about black caddies to the completion. They were placed within the top ten.

Concurrent to these events, there was a move to fund a Gqebera Oral History Project. This idea grew out of Sinakho Trust and their understanding of the township. Eventually, this project took root and the Gqebera Oral History Project was born in 2006. Pat Gibbs, an Oral Historian, guided this project. It was funded by NMBM Arts and Culture, and later received funding from the Red Location Museum. Sinakho Trust, a registered NPO based in Gqebera, acted as the administrator of the funds. Gift and Phambili were trained to be the researchers for this Project. The outcome included a 45 page history held by the Red Location Museum in their archives for Oral History. This document details the history of music and theatre within Gqebera. Another outcome was an original musical play, “Esitripini,” (The Strip) which was performed at the Red Location Museum, Gqebera, Motherwell, Helenvale, Gelvandale, Kwanoxolo, Kwazakhele, and Soweto-on-Sea townships in Port Elizabeth, now the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality.

As the Oral History Project was concluding, the Gqebera Youth Development Forum was formed with participation by Gift and Phambili. The Forum received annual funding from Grants-in-Aid from 2005 until 2012. “Esitripini” was rewritten and performed to over 200 people at Walmer High School. In addition, there was a Gqebera Competition held in the Walmer High School Hall in areas of music, instruments, theatre, dance, and comedy. Over 400 people attended throughout the competition.

Another evolution occurred with the “Youth Theatre Troupe,” which several years ago adopted the name “Isithatha Theatre.” Original African plays based on traditional story telling such as “Uncle Rhoo” were performed in Xhosa. “Uncle Rhoo” is about traditional funerals. The play highlights how artists die as paupers and receive recognition only in death. The play challenges the modern abuses in funerals, which often depart from the traditional practices of honouring the dead. Internal to the structure of the play is the conflict between honour and display. “Uncle Rhoo” was performed in Motherwell and Gqebera. “Numbulelo and Imbulu,” is a play about a Xhosa mythical character that can transform itself: however Imbulu can never lose its tail. The play was performed very successfully in outdoor Gqebera venues with audiences doubling in size between performances.

Other traditional work has been performed like “Malima and the Calabash Kids” and “Kudolion and the Mouse,” a traditional favourite, at Xolelani Centre performed before an audience of 70 students. Isithatha Youth Theatre has been performing since 2005. Another 1975 play, “I Believe”, was performed during 2013. It is about the anxiety experienced by parents when their children are out in the street. The drama challenges one’s fear and encourages youth to stand up for themselves.

Isithatha Theatre has a special dedication and commitment to African Theatre. African Theatre differs from Western Theatre. Some of the important differences are:

  1. African culture is intimate to the drama, not separate from it.
  2. African drama focuses on the everyday life of people and of current living.
  3. There can be an additional emphasis on traditional oral stories translated into drama and other topics like “The Struggle”.
  4. African Drama is written within a group context with a writing playwright and many contributors.
  5. African drama is interactive with the actors responding to the audience during performance.
  6. African drama has a structure and script: however, the actors can and do invent while the drama unfolds. This is influenced by the audience and also by an actor’s new insight into the drama or a role. The other actors adapt.

 In 2013, “Back of Beyond” was co-authored with Gift, Phambili and Linda Louise Swain. This drama is about the relationship between a gardener and his madam. This drama continues where “Heugh Rd. Blues” left off. This drama was performed at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival to sell-out crowds, who loved the work.

Phambili trains youth in drama from 4-6 hours per week. Gift directed  a group of adult township actors.  The youth also attended iDrama Drama for 3 hrs on Saturdays at the Opera House through 2013.

The relationship with Sharon Rother of Rother Swain Studios started in 2008. This relationship initiated by Phambili developed concurrent to Isithatha Theatre within Gqebera. This resulted in the Isithatha Theatre Development Task Team, which met for the first time in May 2011.

Sharon saw the talent in Gift and Phambili and directed “Heugh Rd. Blues” at the Opera House for the “One Act Play Festival” in 2008. This led to auditions for Gift and Phambili for Port Elizabeth’s Shakespearian Festival at the outdoor Mannville Theatre. They were part of the casts for “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Later, they were part of the cast for “Government Inspector” at the Pemads Theatre.

Next, “Master Harold and the Boys” was directed by Sharon with Gift and Phambili as principal actors together with Cameron Robertson. This Fugard Play was performed at the Barn, the 2010 FIFA Opera House Celebration, the 2010 Fugard Festival in Nieu Bethesda, and again at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2011 to sold out crowds. Gift was named the Best Performer at the Fugard Festival. Gift, Phambili, Sharon and Cameron all won Showtime Awards in 2011. In addition, their performances of “Master Harold and the Boys” won the 2011 Showtime Award as the “Best Play of the Year.”

Gift and Phambili  both achieved their Advanced Performance Certificates through Trinity Guildhall, London.

Isithatha hosted a Cultural Exchange with USA Uprooted/Renaissance Theaterworks in June 2013. Marti Gobel, Suzan Fete and Brandy Kline were the exchange theatre staff from the USA.  A return exchange was planned, but this never came to fruition.  We hope that this can be achieved in the future.

On 16 June 2014, Gift Buqa wrote and starred in his first one-man play entitled “Picture Frame”.  This was performed at an informal shack theatre in Gamanda Street and directed by young Isithatha Trustee, Fundile Makosi.   The play was about a regular theme of the plays written by Gift – Poverty and life in the township.  The play was performed to a packed house.  Gift had achieved a long held dream – his one man play.  Gift Buqa passed away in on 25 July 2014.  A devastating loss to all who knew and loved him.

Isithatha and the original vision is being continued by the Isithatha Board together with several of the young actors who received training from Gift. Gift is fondly remembered by all.

Shortly after Gift’s death, the Trust received news that the Cultural Tour funding had been approved by the NLC.  This was closely followed by the news that the Theatre Building project was approved by NLC and Isithatha was granted the funds to acquire a building to fulfill the Isithatha vision of owning a creative space for a theatre.  Isithatha is committed to continuing the project as part of Gift’s legacy and the Trust moved into a beautiful heritage building : 12, 9th Avenue, Walmer (Wood Park) on 1 August 2017,  after much searching to find the perfect property. Gift was a carpenter – what an appropriate name for the theatre!

The Isithatha Board is in the process of applying for Business Rights and so all plans are on hold until we are able to open officially and legally.  In the interim, the Board maintain the property, use it for meeting venues and for rehearsals.  Unfortunately, no public performances can occur until all the proper procedures have been followed.

Isithatha is led by a passionate group of people who have volunteered their time and services for almost ten years.