Share this article

IF there ever was a building that could speak, the Soweto Theatre would speak loudly, and in many languages. The theatre consists of three large colourful boxes – in red, yellow and blue – contained within two soaring concave buttress walls.
Different textures, different materials, different angles, different shapes – but all talk to one another in harmony in a building that makes a bold statement in Jabulani, a suburb that is lifting off.

“We have let the boxes be pure shapes,” says Tony de Oliveira, the senior technologist at Chibwe Afritects, the firm that won the tender to design the theatre, which opened a month ago with the superb production The Suitcase. Each box contains a theatre.

The red box greets the visitor in the foyer – covered in a 15m high wall of gleaming red tiles, reaching up and over the roof. But they also plunge into the basement, visible through a glass strip running around the box. The rounded edges soften the box, making it fluid and friendly.

This is the main theatre, seating 435 in red seats with red bulbous walls. It gives the space a warmth, and despite its size, a cosiness. The design means that even those on the balcony feel an intimacy with the stage. The stage has a state-of-the-art fly tower or stage set control, reaching up into the roof, and a full orchestra pit.

Snuggled on either side of the main theatre, the two smaller boxes are finished in vibrant yellow and dazzling blue tiles. They seat 90 and 180, and are versatile spaces; the seating stands can be moved around to suit the production. They will be available for local actors to perform home-grown work, and already a busy programme of performances in the coming months has been planned.

Gleaming concrete floors complement the smooth yellow and red tiles of the theatresGleaming concrete floors complement the smooth yellow and red tiles of the theatresThe vibrant colours are offset with smooth grey concrete floors and walls in the rest of the building.

De Oliveira and architect Sergio Duarte stress that they wanted the three boxes to be clearly visible from the street – in fact, they’re almost visible from the entrance to the township, at the Orlando Towers. The Jabulani community was consulted on what it wanted and colour was the answer, they say.

The City is thrilled with the result. “The architects certainly believe that exuberant colour is part of Soweto’s identity. I think it is an aspirational building and Sowetans are highly aspirational,” says Steven Sack, the director of arts, culture and heritage in the City, the department that commissioned the building.

Sack says the brief to the architects was simple: “To build a centre for the performing arts that used innovative design to produce an iconic and photogenic building. To use the box as the basic form given that it results in flexible spaces and sets the basis for good acoustics.”

Joburg decided that the area around the 60-year-old Jabulani Amphitheatre should be developed, led by the Johannesburg Property Company. Eight parcels of land were identified, for housing, retail, office and recreation. A tender for a development company was issued, given to Inkanyeli Associates, which then brought Chibwe Afritects on board for the design and construction of the theatre.

The successful bidder was required to contribute R60-million, while the City contributed the rest of the R150-million build. The theatre is to be the catalyst for the Jabulani precinct development project, with its “culture-led urban regeneration”.

The tent provides shade to the forecourt, allowing it to be used as a performance spaceThe tent provides shade to the forecourt, allowing it to be used as a performance spaceDuarte says they brought in local theatre specialist Denis Hutchinson to advise on the finer details of theatre design. And they used the Young Vic in London as their model, studying its use of space with three theatres in one complex.

The particular site was chosen, he adds, alongside the amphitheatre. It is also near to the Jabulani rail station, and with the Rea Vaya bus running outside, along Bolani Road. A taxi rank is across the road, providing maximum accessibility to Sowetans. The Jabulani Shopping Centre, one of two in Soweto, is a block away.

Commuters walk past the theatre and interact with its exterior design, helping to formalise the path leading from the station to the road.

Convex walls
The concave shape of the two buttresses mean that the west and east inner walls are convex, giving the interior an intriguing shape – it is slightly disconcerting in its slope yet interesting with its slightly lopsided windows and skylights.

Passages lead to glass doors, which give views of the roofs of the two smaller boxes and of the street running north of the theatre. Silver air-conditioning tubing runs below the ceiling, especially designed to add a decorative but functional element.

Metal struts that hold the glass front continue down passages on the ground floor. Above the bar is a rounded wood, glass and metal walkway, running the length of the main theatre, with two angular Juliet balconies.

The bricked forecourt is large enough to be used as a performance area, or a grand reception area, protected from the sun by the angled tent roof. The building expands over three floors, with offices and conference spaces on the top floor. The second floor contains change rooms shared by all three theatres, while the ground floor has a jazzy bar, the box office and kitchen facilities.

The canvas tent covering the forecourt, its tessellated edges giving unusual shadows on the ground (photo: Tony de Oliveira)The canvas tent covering the forecourt, its tessellated edges giving unusual shadows on the ground (Photo: Tony de Oliveira)Art fills the walls and bold sculptures punctuate the corridors. At present, there is an exhibition of works by local artists. “The building is beautiful and as we learn how to use it we discover how functional it is. For technical staff it has many excellent features and the actors love the dressing rooms,” says Sack.

Materials used have another element in common – their durability. The concrete, the tiles, the metal and the glass are long-lasting and require minimal maintenance. The buttresses consist of polystyrene and reinforced mesh, completed with a plaster skin, giving good thermal qualities. And, they are radiant in the rising and setting sun.

Jabulani Amphitheatre
Next door to the Soweto Theatre is the 15 000-seat Jabulani Amphitheatre, a venue of great significance to Sowetans. It was built in 1952 by the West Rand Administration Board to host cultural and sporting events. One of the few leisure facilities provided for Sowetans, it was one of the few apartheid structures that wasn’t torched in the 1976 upheavals in the township.

In the 1960s, it hosted jazz festivals and was the official venue for the Soweto national jazz festival in the 1970s. In the 1980s, it graduated to the venue for maskandi and isicathamiya traditional music. Music greats like Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse played here, as well as Blondie Makhene, the Black Hawks, Rebecca Malope and Lundi. Touring American bands like The Staple Singer and Dobbie Gray played here too.

Political meetings also took place within its stands in the 1980s, from gatherings of the ANC, PAC and Inkatha Freedom Party, to the coalition group, the UDF. Trade unions used the venue for educational workshops, congresses and meetings. Various churches used it to pray for the sick and for peace between the warring Inkatha Freedom Party and ANC supporters.

The derelict amphitheatre, soon to be upgraded to provide seating for 3 000The derelict amphitheatre, soon to be upgraded to provide seating for 3 000In 1985, Zinzi Mandela read out the letter written by her father, Nelson Mandela, rejecting the apartheid government’s conditional offer to release him. Political funerals were held here, too – in 1990, the funeral service of student activist Tsietsi Mashinini, and a memorial service to Chris Hani took place in 1993.

Boxing tournaments have been held at the amphitheatre, including a knock-out of American David Love by Simon “Tap Tap” Makhathini from KwaZulu-Natal. It is still used as a gym by local body builders.

The Soweto Theatre is in good company. The amphitheatre, now weed-filled and in need of refurbishment, will be upgraded in July, creating capacity for 3 000 people.

But how will the theatre sustain itself? “We will need partnerships to make it all work and the City will provide a basic grant. This kind of facility needs to be understood as a public good. We will attempt to maximise our income as much as possible and will make it a place where everyone pays something,” says Sack.

De Oliveira and Duarte say the project has been very rewarding. “It is a sculpture on its own.” Indeed it is.

Related stories:

Excitement greets new Soweto Theatre
Soweto Theatre lands award
New hospital for Soweto
New look for Jabulani
Joburg: art, culture and heritage