Sophiatown speaks

Untitled0-25Last year I went to see a play called ‘Sophiatown’. Everyone was talking about it. The play was about how people lived in Sophiatown – and how they were forced to leave their homes. But it wasn’t all sad. There was lots of singing and dancing too.

During the interval, while I was having a cool drink, I saw a book called, ‘Sophiatown Speaks’. I picked it up and looked at it. I saw the book was written by the same people who were doing the play – the Junction Avenue Theatre Group.

I think the photographs first caught my eye – gangsters in great big American cars, wearing very fancy clothes, people dancing, children playing. And the sad, sad pictures of people being moved out of their homes.

I started reading the stories about the people of ‘Kofifi’. My friends were pulling on my arm, telling me the play was starting. Someone was asking me for money – the bookshop owner!

I didn’t have money for the book then. So I went back to see the rest of the play. But I went back to the bookshop the very next day to buy ‘Sophiatown Speaks’. I wanted to finish reading it.

A backyard in 'Kofifi'

A backyard in ‘Kofifi’

TALKING TO THE JUNCTION AVENUE GROUP

When I finished the book, I went to find the people who put it together. I spoke to Pippa Stein of the Junction Avenue Theatre Group.

FINDING HIDDEN HISTORY

“The Junction Avenue Theatre Group does plays about Johannesburg,” Pippa told me. “We do plays about the ‘hidden’ history – the history that you don’t read in history books at school.

“We felt that moving people out of Sophiatown was a very important time in the history of Johannesburg. If people had stayed in Sophiatown, Jo’burg would be a very different city today.”

SOPHIATOWN – TIME AND PLACE

“But Sophiatown was more than just a place – it was a time. It was a time when people lived together, when people owned their houses and lived close to town.

“It was also the time of the Defiance Campaign. It was a time of the gangsters and the priests. It was the time of black writers like Can Themba and Henry Nxumalo.

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EVERYTHING MUST BE RIGHT

“When we were working on the play, we knew that we must get everything right – the clothes, the language, everything. We knew people who lived in Sophiatown would come and see the play. So we could not make mistakes.

“The only way to get things right was to talk to people who lived in “Kofifi1. We spoke to all sorts of different people. We asked Jane Dakile, a teacher from Sophiatown to come. We spoke to Don Mattera and Kort Boy. They were both gangsters in “Kofifi’ time.

“We spoke to people who worked for Drum magazine at that time. We spoke to Father Huddleston who was the priest there. And we spoke to people who knew ‘Kofifi’ and the people who lived there.”

THEY GAVE US HISTORY

“These people really helped us. When they left us, we saw that they had given us more than just help with the play. Their stories about Sophiatown were living history. So we wrote their stories down, just as they told them to us. And that is how the book, “Sophiatown Speaks’ was born.”

That is what “Sophiatown Speaks’ is – a piece of living history, The people who wrote down the stories tried to make the English easy. But the English is more difficult than Learn and Teach.

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