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Workshopped plays in a South African correction centre : negotiating social relations through theatre.


From 1999 until 2008 I worked with offenders making plays at Westville Medium B Correction Centre, using collective techniques to address social issues and involve the audience in debates. This work was inspired by the Southern African Theatre for Development of the 1980s. During 2002 and 2003 the offenders created and performed the two plays which form the case studies for this research. Isikhathi Sewashi (The Time of the Watch), presents their experiences of growing up under apartheid, political faction fighting, and crime and asks the audience to generate solutions to crime. Lisekhon’ Ithemba (There is Still Hope) addresses the prejudice of the correctional staff and offenders towards those living with HIV/AIDS. Offenders were involved in the research process and conducted group interviews with 110 members of the audience. I conducted interviews with 21 performers and used classical Grounded Theory to analyse the interviews. The theory that emerged demonstrates how the offenders, performers and audience used theatre to negotiate social relations. The plays negotiated the stereotyping of offenders, managed conflict, and increased care for offenders who were ill. Offenders also used the plays to negotiate power relations involving the correctional system and the numbers gangs. Collective play-making techniques allowed western and African aesthetics to combine. The aesthetics of Epic Theatre and Theatre of the Oppressed combined with those of isiZulu popular performance. The theories of Freire (1996:64), Brecht (in Willet 1964: 57) and Boal (1979:xix–xxi) had the intention of promoting actions and change of a social and political nature. Both Soyinka (1976: 51) and Kamlongera (n.d. 18-26) argue that theatre that engages an African worldview has its roots in social functions involving man and his environment. The offenders’ identification with characters and situations, their feelings of regret and self-pity, drove their critical engagement with the plays. They then formulated solutions and took action to effect change. Some of their actions challenged the authority of the correctional system and the numbers gang. The binary formulation of Aristotelian and non-Aristotelian theatre in the work of Brecht (in Willet 1964: 281) and Boal (2000: xix –xxi) is contradicted in this case study. Elements from both forms co-exist here. The audience’s responses to the plays reflect what Freire (1996:33) refers to as domesticating oppression but also demonstrate praxis which emerges as forms of resistance, and self-creation. The offenders’ potential to effect change in the correction centre, however, remains limited. My findings address current debates in the field of Prison Theatre (Thompson 1998:11 and Balfour 2004: 1-18) about the potential for theatre to effect change beyond offending behaviour and to include systemic change within the correctional system. Collective play-making provides offenders with a voice in the correction centre. The power of collective play-making is that cultural production remains in the hands of offenders and becomes a means through which they can expresses their concerns and sense of reality. Further research around collective play-making in other contexts and involving communities with different cultural resources is needed to validate the emergent theory presented here or to arrive at further reformulations.


Thesis (Ph.D.)-University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 2009.


Prisons--South Africa., Corrections--South Africa., Theses--Community development.