MARK Smith



South Africa Black ’77 Theater Project


David Fana Kakana popped into my head echoing loudly followed by Dan, Themba, Seth and Peter where are you?

One question leads to another…

Through the airwaves, into the television, refractions of Soweto burst forth permeating our world. I was 20 years old and had a deepening friendship with Jim Bertholf, chair of the theater arts department at Orange Coast College.

In 1976 the capabilities for us all to search, see and connect on the internet was still being engineered. It didn’t yet exist, if you really wanted to see for yourself you had to get out of your chair, get up and go.

That’s what Jim did. He flew from Southern California to South Africa to see what was going on and how the theater was active in the current unrest.

Upon arriving at his friend, John Higgins’ place, many doors to the scene were opened including that of Workshop ’71 and the work of Mshengu.

After seeing the performance of “Survival” Jim presented a question to the actors.

Their yeses put everything in motion…

Jim landed back home at the same time I drove up his street. When I rolled down the window to welcome him back he leaned in with his heartfelt grin and asked if I wanted to help him produce a theater project from South Africa.

“Yes” was all I could think of to say. Another big yes came from Valerie.

These milestones shall never fade from memory. The course of lives were effected towards this moment in time we all find ourselves.

Asking once again, “how did we get here?”

This story starts where I left off, at the last performance of the South African Black ‘77 Theater Project, in the last scene of the play “Survival,” when my hands are on the levers ready for the final cues to dim the stage lights and bring up the house lights awakening the audience to their current reality…

Those questions, the yeses from each of us decades ago, and now a crazy collision of occurrences with Mshengu, Michele, Brandon and Valerie has ignited memories and searching though dusty boxes that had not been opened in decades.

F.Y.I.: “A Question of Survival” thought to be long lost, recently discovered video by David Fanning at Channel 50 KOCE-TV was aired February 3, 1977. This documents the arrival of the actors in Southern California and snippets of rehearsal preparing for the tour.

Playing up and down the west coast between Mexico and Canada performing in everything from professional theaters to school gymnasiums and hosting talks with the audiences, we lived a story well told… while we did much more than just survive.


From the original program of the South African Black ’77 Theater Project presenting the play Survival. Featuring Dan Selaelo Maredi, Themba Ntinga, Seth Sibanda, David Fana Kekana and Peter Sephuma. Produced by Jim Bertholf, John Higgins, Valerie Warburton and Mark Smith.


August 16, 1976

One midnight during a clear cold winter, at the tip of Africa, in a small apartment on the edge of Johannesburg, seven young men assembled to shake hands on a pact which would drastically change the future of all involved. One theater director from Australia, five black South African actors, and one American professor.

In South Africa, even being together with blacks in the white suburb, late at night, after curfew, could mean immediate arrest and unlimited detention for all present, or a minimum of instant deportation for the foreigners.

There is no adequate description of the ultimate effects of South African political prisons. Many don’t survive “accidents and suicides”.

With agreements made in low voices, handshakes in the hallway and quiet farewells, the blacks boarded a battered truck bound for the sprawling black city of Soweto. The American prepared to depart for a flight up to Kenya, Zurich, London, over the Pole, to Los Angeles — Home.

That meeting was the beginning of an African theater project, with international implications which would only find its way into the United States, and onto the college campuses, if it survived the maze of government officials; union disputes; senator’s offices; the bureaus of immigration and labor; congressional offices in Chicago, Detroit, Maryland, Texas, and California; the Bureau of State Security in South Africa; special meeting in New York, the America Embassy in Johannesburg; midnight phone calls to London, to Johannesburg, New York, San Francisco, Henry Kissinger’s state department; calls to Pretoria, South Africa and the Pretoria government; calls to the American consulate and finally a college campus by the Pacific, 12,000 miles from Africa in Southern California.

The actors in this story compose the most important theater troupe to appear in the United States this year, or possibly any year. With personal experiences as profound and disturbing as Alex Haley’s “Roots”, but as current as the headlines from Soweto. Even on leaving the plane in Los Angeles they recoiled, as the cameras and bright lights flashed on. They thought they were being arrested.

Fear was the price they had to pay for being visible, for dramatizing their own lives, for inspiring black and whites alike, with hope through music, satire, chilling drama and lacerating comedy.

The possibility of getting this PARTICULAR group to the United States, was in question until literally a few hours before their plane took off from Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg. The day before their departure, they were arrested along with their Australian company manager John Higgins for taking photographs of their own homes and townships, and questioned about their plans in the United States. Their film was confiscated and a $50 fine was paid.

Departure was then moved up and arranged from the United States by Professor Bertholf. Tickets were wired, visas stamped, bags packed and a hurried trip to the airport arranged. Everyone held their breath and not until the drive down the San Diego freeway, from Los Angeles International Airport to Newport Beach, did anyone accept this it was all over. They were finally here.