Obituary: Barney Simon
Theatre in South Africa without Barney Simon is unimaginable.
With Athol Fugard - whose early plays he directed - back in the 1950s and 1960s, Simon broke the colonial mould of staging only those plays already applauded in the West End and on Broadway, discarded lack of confidence in our ability to judge theatre for ourselves, and opened the Brechtian road for South Africans to assert, as playwrights and actors, what Walter Benjamin called the "ability to relate their lives"; the tragedy and vitality, the defiant humour of poverty in the underworld of black townships that was, in fact, the real South Africa.
During those years, it was the alternative theatre that kept the head of culture above engulfing apartheid. Where books were banned, the stage got away with the wily genre of illusion. Barney Simon was one of the founders of the Market Theatre, and from its beginnings in 1976 in the converted buildings of what had been our Johannesburg Covent Garden he put into its survival and growth as alternative theatre his very life.
No one knows how many men and women who have become the makers of a unique black theatre and a unique non-racial theatre in South Africa, known over the world, come from his vision and patient energy as director/writer. His attitude was always not only to teach others what he knew, but - that was the brilliance of it - to draw from them what was deep in the streets and in themselves.
I remember, decades ago, Barney Simon came by and asked if I would like to come with him to meet two young men who were keen to devise a play. They were Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema, and they had the germ of an idea in two out-of-works chatting in a graveyard where the great African National Congress leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Chief Albert Luthuli was buried. He got them to explore the idea, probing into the content; he told them to go home to Soweto and talk about it to street traders, crones, youths hanging around the bus stations, gangsters, taxi drivers, anyone - and come back with their gleanings a week later.
From this material he nurtured their great talent as actors to shape with them Woza Albert ("Come Back, Arise Albert"), a marvellous work using music, mimicry, irony and stand-up comedy in a message of liberation. The play was the first of many successes for Mtwa and Ngema, a prototype of the new theatre, to be created by them and their contemporaries, that showed the world outside what the statute-book version of apartheid was really like in terms of black people's account of their own lives.
Simon was artistic director of the Market Theatre for virtually all his life, producing his own plays, international works, and adaptations of others' stories - Can Themba's The Suit is one of them, running in London now - and in the last decade devoting enormous energy to the Laboratory, part of the Market's theatre complex, where aspirant playwrights could develop and stage their plays under his superbly creative guidance.
What was Barney Simon like as a man? In contrast to his masterly professionalism in the theatre, he was often bamboozled by the mechanisms of daily life: a sort of endearing Woody Allen character, defeated by burst pipes, car break-downs, and, in human relations, open to exploitation in his kindness to anyone with a hard-luck story. He was a loving and loved friend; the theatre was his family. Wherever theatre flourishes in this free South Africa his work helped bring about, his spirit will be present: Woza Barney.
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