Grand old lady of Hillbrow gets a lick of greasepaint
The Windybrow Theatre is brought to life with a production about itself
It’s a novel idea. Creating a piece of theatre about a theatre. A theatre, after all, is a place that holds different interpretations of historical moments and must, therefore, hold some essence of the spirit of the times in its walls, curtains and floorboards.
The Market Theatre Foundation has been researching and imagining the life of the Windybrow Theatre, a Johannesburg grande dame that has experienced riches and ruin, dinner parties, dereliction and rebirth.
Built by one of Joburg’s pioneer families, the Windybrow has, according to the foundation, been a home, a boarding house, officers’ mess, nursing school and sometimes a shelter for vagrants. Its most memorable role, though, has been as an arts centre and theatre.Last year it turned 120 and is being revived after years of neglect and mismanagement. The house stands at the point on Nugget Street where Hillbrow lives up to its name, an anomaly in a neighbourhood of crumbling high-rises.
With strong pan-African connections, the mansion in Hillbrow has survived threats of demolition and remains a rich reminder of the Joburg that once existed with its randlord connections and highbrow society that existed on the edges of downtown.So a new production, Ngale KweNdlu: The Other Side of the House, has been workshopped to add kudos to the argument to keep the Windybrow standing. The production’s creators say that it will delve into the history of the the theatre – its imagined secrets, untold stories and fading memories.
“Audiences will be led on a journey, experiencing the house from different vantage points – the grand reception areas and the intimate nooks. Characters from different periods of time might bump into each other on the stairwell – Doornfontein’s high society randlord wives, street vagrants, actors, nurses and Boer war soldiers,” says Tamara Guhrs, who, with Alex Halligey, has been working with the company to conceptualise a theatre experience that brings its legacy alive.“What really moved me,” says actress Lesego Chabedi, “was speaking to Papa John Ramasholwane and hearing how much this place has meant to him. There was a time when there were accusations of financial mismanagement, a forensic report, and so on. The theatre was dark and fell into disrepair. Now it is being revamped, and the house has new energy, but it is still sad to be removing the revolving stage from the theatre. We want to honour spaces like the old Dalro Theatre, and help a new generation to understand what the Windybrow meant and can still mean.”“It will be more than a theatre production,” adds Mathews Rantsoma, a graduate of the Market Theatre Lab and member of the new drama company. “We are trying to show the other side of Joburg’ s history – the gold miners and workers who built the city, whose stories are buried. The ones you don’t see in the photographs.”
Ngale KweNdlu: The Other Side of the House will run from March 17-25 at The Windybrow. Go to webtickets to book.