Bertrams: A love song in academia

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. We’re in the Johannesburg suburb of Bertrams with all its broken dreams, building repair sites and street-based hawkers. It’s Septemberish in 2016. The air is hazy with pollen, but complicated with the excitement of a new entity. And a bunch of people, some of whom know Bertrams inside out, and others who used to visit there – or live there – decades ago, are visiting. They’re here for Izithombe 2094, a street performance that is about a lot more than traditional theatre pragmatics. It’s a whole rollicking engagement with the suburb and its energies and with the smashing of theatre-based rules. This is the project of South African academic Alex Halligey, associated with the South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning in the department of Architecture and Planning at Wits University. Indeed, it’s the meat of her doctoral dissertation and it’s just been published by Routledge.

Not exactly the type of publication that you can read in the bath or on the beach, this book offers wise and intimate reflections on the notion of site-specific art and street theatre. It pushes the parameters further, into a reading of the suburb’s demographics and history, through the rollicking project undertaken by Halligey. And it is an important work because of how it splays open an understanding of play, of theatre and of how the two interface, removed as they are, from western proscenium traditions.

But more than all of this, this text is about communication. Between the women and children who live in a place of safety in the suburb, and the elderly housed in a community facility; between the informal buskers and poets and children in the streets and the theatre professionals who made themselves into Bertrams plants in order to tell the tales of the suburb and its people. Indeed, Halligey comments in the text: “Communication, when it really happens, is exposing, and exposing because it is at the limits of ourselves that we meet the limits of others, equally exposed.”

The magic and importance of this text lies, however, not only in the initiative itself, but also in the levity and flow of Halligey’s language. Structured according to academic protocol, there are all the bits and pieces that draw from PhD rules of writing, but as the material begins to unfold, so does Halligey’s thinking and writing sparkle to life. And this is, in a sense the rub: Routledge has its academic lines to toe in this type of publication and more’s the pity: this work should have enjoyed full colour photographs used well and magnificently to tease in readerships.

As it stands, you need to clamber through the material to find the gems and the small, low-resolution black and white photographs do not help. But if this is to be a text book for future geographers and thespians, anthropologists and ethnographers, they’ll be blessed with a beautiful body of research and a kick-ass case study.

  • Participatory Theatre and the Urban Everyday in South Africa: Place and play in Johannesburg by Alexandra Halligey is published by Routledge, London and New York (2020).

1 reply »

  1. I went on that experience and still think of it whenever I am in the area, even though I didn’t enjoy it that much. But it was certainly interesting and a different way to experience a suburb, and I am sure it makes for a fascinating read.

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