Tony Jackman
Tony Jackman

Just when you thought it was safe to go out at night

Well, there I was, back at the theatre with an open mind and two open eyes, scanning the crowd from the highest vantage point at the Baxter Theatre, when I stopped myself. “Tony,” I said, “You’re counting black people, for God’s sake”. Had it really come to this?

People like my fellow Thought Leader blogger Sandile Memela have that effect on you. You start to think, jeez, could the oke be right? Could it be true that theatre at the Cape needs to be transformed, that the Baxter and Artscape and the NewSpace and the Little are populated by diehard white racists who haven’t yet realised we have a democracy and that they have no right to be going to the theatre if black people don’t want to go there? I didn’t want to believe it, I really didn’t, and so it had been with my heart in my mouth that I had trudged up to my secret lair.

A few weeks earlier, I had been at the NewSpace theatre and had counted about, ag, I dunno … two black people in a full house of 200-odd. I was shocked to the core. Damn, just when you think it’s safe to go out at night, there were white okes, I mean, EVERYWHERE, dude. Well, not okes, exactly. Tannies, mostly. These were clearly the remnants of the middle-aged couples who had filled the Baxter et al in the 1980s to see racist whitey shows like Woza Albert and You Strike The Woman You Strike The Rock and all those fascist shows by Barney Simon, but the men had all died out and there were just all these blue-rinsed old dears left, shaving off a few cents from their pension money for an outing at the theatre. But I tried to find solace in the hope that that night at the NewSpace was just one night at one theatre, and a papered house too, so it didn’t really seem right somehow to jump to any unwarranted conclusions.

So I went back last week. I chose my night carefully, and I told no one, lest some diehard white racist PR type cunningly sneak in a busload of people from Gugs just before curtain-up. I wanted the truth, damn it. And I chose the Baxter, not the NewSpace, just to keep all the PR people on the hop.

So here I was, halfway through my mission to find the truth about racist Cape theatre. The highest vantage point at the Baxter is really very high. It’s an eagle-eye eyrie, reached with enough steps to have your thigh muscles begging for a break. Kilimanjaro is nothing compared to the Baxter on opening night with a sprained ankle. (Did I mention that?) You need to have a glass of wine in hand to refresh yourself when you reach the summit, which luckily I had had the foresight to have in my hand, though not for long. Heights are not my best thing.

From this vantage point you have a God’s-eye-view of everyone — they don’t call it The Gods for nothing. You can gaze down from on high and have a pretty good idea of who’s who, who’s going to which theatre, who likes to have an alcoholic booster to fortify themselves for the show ahead (this varies in strength, I observed, depending on which show they were attending — the people going to Comedy Night all looked well on their way), who’s teetotal and who’s, well, not quite so white as the others.

And I was, I have to say (with some relief) somewhat heartened, for there, far below me, were at least 30 or more people of the formerly disadvantaged persuasion. That is to say, I had counted to 30 when I stopped counting, because I suddenly stopped myself when I reminded myself exactly what I was doing up there. I was counting black people. This was something an old-time beach konstabel would have done, before going up to the ones he had counted and telling them to get off the beach. This was a bad thing. This was something an old tannie in the Seventies would have done in the supermarket, before going to the manager to say she wasn’t going to shop there again if they were going to let the bladdy blacks take over the bladdy place.

The unpalatable truth could not be ignored — this was a racist thing. There was no way around it — to count people according to their race can only be racist. I was ashamed, and so I slunk back down the very many stairs until I had achieved equilibrium with my conscience and with my fellow theatregoers. Down there, we were all as one. It mattered not how many of us were white, or black, or blue with funny hair. We were people who loved the theatre, and who were there for a shot of culture, some drama, a couple of laughs, and to go home enriched.

I did not know many of the people there, having been out of Cape Town for most of the last eight years, but suddenly there appeared before me a man who stuck out his hand and said, “Tony Jackman! We haven’t met, but I’m a reader of your blog!” More astonishingly, the man with the big smiley face standing before me was one of those very black theatregoers I had counted only a few minutes earlier from my secret lair in the Gods. And then I realised that I had seen the man’s face before — right here, on Thought Leader.

I had just met Sandile Memela. And I have a feeling this may be the start of a great friendship.