A group of homeless people living on the streets of Johannesburg have found their true calling in theatre. With the help of a dedicated teacher, the group is taking Shakespeare to the streets, using his words to tell their stories.
Founded in 2012 by South African actress and acting coach Dorothy Ann Gould, the Johannesburg Awakening Minds (JAM) theatre group comprises homeless men and women living on the inner city streets of Johannesburg.
The group began as an acting therapy class in Hillbrow, with the intention, as Gould writes on her website, of “[letting] individuals feel that they had the right to speak, the right to be seen and the right to tell their stories in a city which has been very cruel to them”.
Classes include vocal training, theatre stagecraft and creative writing exercises. The students quickly began finding their voices in the works of William Shakespeare, with many of them starting to recite some of the Bard’s most famous soliloquies on street corners as their own performance pieces.
In Shakespeare, Gould writes, the actors found that “[the words] of Macbeth and Titus were speaking about their pain and that the plays were huge receptacles that could hold all the emotions that they needed to release: the rage, the feelings of abandonment; they began to flex again their intellectual muscle, to debate, have opinions and to become a team that support each other and watch each other’s backs, not only on the streets, but on stage.”
The group has performed on stage intermittently since 2013, including performances at the Johannesburg Arts Alive festival, at the Space.com event at the Johannesburg Theatre and as part of the Shakespeare Society of South Africa festival on radio station Classic FM.
With their stage productions few and far between, most of the actors still live on the streets or in shelters, but they have found a continued inspiration in performing for the public on street corners. Some of the actors have moved into other artistic pursuits, such as painting, and selling their works at markets.
Donations and sponsorships, as well any small profit from the group’s performances, have helped the JAM members slowly re-enter society, enabling some to open bank accounts, begin hawker businesses and help their families.
Some of the rising stars of the JAM group have also found work in short student films and as extras in television productions.
JAM member Thando Matodlana has been accepted to study at The Market Theatre Laboratory theatre school, while Sibusiso Magubane has acted in television commercials and is auditioning for speaking roles in local and international films being made in Johannesburg.
Gould describes her students as “dedicated and passionate… the talent and growth they have displayed is truly inspirational. Proving that Shakespeare is not for the old, stuffy academic types and has a home in Africa.”
For more information, join the Johannesburg Awakening Minds Facebook page for photos and videos of the group in action.
To support the initiative, contact Dorothy Ann Gould via her Triple Take Studios website here.
Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See Using Brand South Africa material.