This essay, adapted from a family biography, The Keshwars from Dundee, that I wrote towards the end of the first decade of the new millenium, details the consequences of holding the mirror up to apartheid. It’s a Colourful World, a comic revue, written by Guru Pillay in 1970, reflected the absurdities of apartheid. In the short period of its run, though audiences found it hilarious, the apartheid government was not amused. Black theatre, in general, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century, despite stringent attempts to control it, continued relentlessly to reflect the injustices of systemic and individual racism. Though most black playwrights remain unknown, they were as relentless as guerillas in attacking the system.
This is an account of one such theatre venture in Durban that crossed the colour line in its appeal and for that reason primarily was regarded as a serious threat by the government.
In the nineteen-sixties theatre, like everything else in South Africa, was segregated. Though black theatre groups had no proper theatre venues, facilities or funding, they were not deterred. African theatre groups were active in the townships and African, Indian and Coloured actors came into the Durban city centre to put on plays in all kinds of venues: hotel lounges, school and community halls and cinemas –in those days cinemas still had screens that hung over stages. One venue used regularly was the Bolton Hall at the corner of Albert and Queen Streets, just down the road from the Good Hope Centre. The Bolton Hall, a Trade Union Hall, was a popular venue for meetings of organisations opposed to apartheid. It was here that the Brian Brooke Theatre Company, in defiance of racist laws and attitudes, performed to non-racial audiences in the 1950s. In 1954, their production of Cecil William’s play, The Kimberley Train, depicted the experiences of a play-white Coloured woman who is unmasked and humiliated.
Despite segregation laws, there was a tradition of non-racialism among fringe theatre groups in the 1960s and that invited the attention of the Special Branch; rehearsals and productions were kept under surveillance. And there was continuous harrassment of Black and mixed theatre groups. The banning of the revue It’s a Colourful World was typical. But the attempt to reverse the banning order in a court battle, was unusual.
Guru Pillay, very active in theatre at the time and involved with the theatre group MAD (Music And Drama), devised and wrote It’s a Colourful World. He explains how he came up with the concept:
- We met at our workshop in Prince Edward Street and began to toss around a few ideas for a show. It was at this workshop in 1970 that I suggested that we write a revue on the whole concept of colour. I knew that people were interested in any issue dealing with colour.
- I then wrote It’s a Colourful World in a matter of three weeks. I found it very easy to write. The revue dealt with colour in all its aspects, social, political, sexual, love across the colour line, sport, race, marriage, colour consciousness among Indians, even took the colour issue to a philosophical plane!
- It was very funny and at the same time poetic and philosophical. I stuck strictly to the subject of colour, and never deviated from that theme. As one newspaper critic put it: “The entire revue deals with colour and yet one never gets tired of it.”
- Herby Govinden and his team of musicians set the lyrics to music.
- The revue became the talk of the town, and for the first time I saw queues forming outside Bolton Hall in the way people queue to enter a cinema. (Guru Pillay, August 2010)
This is what Professor Herby Govinden, composer of the score and musical director, remembers about It’s a Colourful World.
- Benjy Francis discussed the script with me, asking me to consider writing the musical score. I hadn’t been involved in such a venture before. I had composed music for schools (anthems), and had written liturgical church music. The script of It’s a Colourful World was unique and challenging and I did request Guru’s permission to adapt/amend the lyrics while I was ‘experimenting with my musical ideas. I had a fairly good grounding in western classical and popular music as well as in church music – performance (piano and organ) and theory – light classical (shades of operas by Gilbert & Sullivan), jazz and rock.
- Maynard Peters who was one of the directors kept track of the musical score while it was being written and ‘tried out’ during rehearsals. Peter Somasundram and Andy Joseph also contributed ideas – and even wrote some of the songs which I incorporated into the score. A group of musicians performing on piano, keyboard, guitars and percussion provided background music and accompaniment during the show. The audiences responded enthusiastically and there were some very encouraging newspaper reviews. (Herby Govinden, September 2010)
It’s a Colourful World took Durban by storm. It was a smash hit: unique, original and very entertaining; it presented the absurdities of living with racial and colour discrimination. The show opened on Friday, 22 January 1971, played to full houses, had to be extended and seemed on a limitless run. The main actors, Maynard Peters, Barrie Shah and Benjy Francis received great acclaim for their performances.
The following newspaper reviews, (transcribed from Andy Joseph’s scrapbook) tell, with the freshness of the times, the impact of the musical on Durban audiences. The show, originally planned for a run of one week, received such tremendous support that it was indeed extended. It played to packed houses for three weeks. Ironically, its great success spelled its doom. As a “non-White” show playing to multi-racial audiences and lampooning colour prejudice, it could not survive in a racist environment.Â
- 22 January 1971 (Leader/Graphic?)
- ‘WORLD’ at the BoltonSunday Tribune: 24 January 1971 Review by I. G.
- The controversial “It’s a Colourful World” comes on at the Bolton Hall today (Friday).
- Based on everyday South African situations, the musical revue says all colour is beautiful. An interesting aspect of the show is the music which is all original and significant. Durban-born Andy Joseph, brother of South Africa’s well-known pianist, Chris Joseph, is on the piano. Andy has been responsible for composing some of the music. On organ is Peter Somasundram who has also composed music for the show. Both Andy and Peter have a distinct taste for jazz.
- SWINGING SATIRE
- REVUE: The Mad show – It’s a Colourful World
- (Bolton Hall, Durban)Daily News, Monday, 25 January 1971
- The Music and Drama (MAD) group has produced a completely original satirical revue that really swings. The music is tuneful and the dancing, if a trifle undisciplined, is lively and attractively presented.
- The theme is Colour with a capital “C”. Sketches, for instance, include “The Black and White Song”, “Colour! Colour!”, “Why Can’t The Blacks Be Like the Whites?”, “All Holds Colour-barred” and “It’s a Colourful World”, which gives the show a swinging finale.
- Most of the sketches could stand considerable pruning – they are far too wordy. But it is original and clever and in parts very funny – like the no-contact boxing match between Black and White. It also carries a let’s-get-together message.
- Several artists showed exceptional talent and of the individual acts I thought Barrie Shah’s “My Little White Friend” was beautifully sung.
- Rating: Swingingly different.
- Review by Roy Christie
- REVUE MERITS NATIONAL ACCLAIM
- AN extraordinary event is occurring this week at the Bolton Hall in Durban, and by rights it should be packed every night by White South Africans. After all, it’s not often that Whites have a chance to see the mickey taken – with surgical accuracy – out of the colour bar by the people who are on the wrong side of it.
- I refer to It’s a Colourful World, an original South African revue, presented by the Music and Drama group, a gathering of non-White Durban talent.
- On the basis of what I have seen, however, I believe that It’s a Colourful World should be presented in Johannesburg and Cape Town – that it should receive national attention, in fact.
- It is a strange experience, as a White man, to sit in the audience and have to identify with the target of the caste’s (sic) satirical barbs. There’s a peculiar poignancy involved, particularly when the sometimes savage shafts are softened by a patent spirit of goodwill.
- If you do not have a white skin in South Africa, there is nothing abstract about the Department of Community Development, or the Group Areas Act, or the law which forbids you to co-habit with your wife or girl-friend while she’s staying on her White employer’s property.
- There is one shockingly hilarious routine in which French bedroom farce blends with the permutations of the Immorality Act. And the melodic lament, A Pair of White Legs, has the bitter-sweet whiff of reality.
- A sketch which is superbly successful satire features Maynard Peters as a nutty surgeon, Barrie Shah as his female assistant and Benjy Francis as a White man they have decided to dissect to see what makes him tick. Just as the mad doctor is about to take the man apart, Barrie warns him: “He probably hasn’t got a heart…”
- The revue is a completely original offering, largely from the pen of Guru Pillay.
Natal Mercury, Friday, 29 January 1971
- CRITICS’ CORNER - Revue – It’s a Colourful World
- “It’s a Colourful World” or “How to write a satirical, musical revue dealing with South Africa’s prime obsession without really offending anyone, and still get the digs in.” That is how this might be seen, and the strange thing is, it really works.
- As a revue on colour by a Coloured group, MAD – Music and Drama – this little musical jollification has points that are highly entertaining and educative for any whites who have the good sense to go and see it.
- It comments on Whites, apartheid, Western culture and what apartheid does to people who are not White. But the tone is such that the qualities that might be expected, bitterness and malice, are not even suggested. It is also very entertaining and, in places, very funny.
- …The inevitable Blaar is dealt with thus – “Blaar, Blaar, Black Sheep, have you had your fill? No, sir, no, sir, there are houses still.’
- And there is a hilarious revelation of Indian colour consciousness in the skit where the dark Baba refuses to marry a nice Indian girl because she’s black.
- The music is effective enough and in two numbers, “A Pair of White Legs” and “My Little White Friend,” it is outstanding.
- In the long run, the final measure of its success as an entertainment, and not a polemic, is that as a two-hour revue, the sole emphasis of which is on one subject, colour, one is never weary of that subject.
- The show has its last performance tonight. D.C.M.
Natal Mercury, January 1971, “Mercury” Reporter
- Revue may extend its run
- The original revue “It’s a Colourful World” presented by the Music and Drama group at the Bolton Hall in Durban has extended its run until Saturday, and “might continue for longer if the present good attendances are maintained.”
- There is a possibility that the revue will be seen in Pietermaritzburg after its Durban run.
The above article appears next to a photograph of a scene from the show. The caption reads: THE SONG “Western Culture” ends a satirical sketch which analyses the White man and discovers that “he is just a human man.” It is one of the items in “It’s a Colourful World, “ whose run has been extended in Durban. (From top) Maynard Peters, Benjay (sic) Francis and Barrie Shah.
Just as the show entered its fourth week, it received a sledgehammer blow that brought it to a sudden halt. On Wednesday, 17 February 1971, the Publications Control Board banned the script of It’s a Colourful World on the grounds that it undermined morality and was offensive to White people. Since White reviewers had declared the show innocuous, the banning came as a great shock.
A pall settled over the group. The euphoria of a runaway success gave way to anxiety and fear. MAD was suddenly forced to confront the brutal reality of living under racist rule. The show, an entertaining send-up of colour prejudice, was a show, a simulation, not real, and very funny. The banning was a slap in the face that forced the group to acknowledge real prejudice. People like Guru, a teacher in the employ of the government, silently contemplated the possibility of reprisals. Surveillance, detention and interrogation loomed large in the minds of all. They had assumed that they had freedom of expression. Now they were awakened to the stark realisation that they did not. They had stepped out of line and their criticism of racism, however innocuous, had been met with the might of the State. Freedom of expression was a privilege that did not extend to “non-Whites.” South Africa was indeed a colourful world and offstage colour was not entertaining or innocuous.
At first members met at their workshop in Prince Edward Street and at Good Hope Centre in a spirit of mourning, but anger overtook self-pity and activated them. True they were “Coloured”*but they were not ciphers; they would fight back. They had recourse to the law. But it was apartheid law, and that meant taking their challenge to racism from the stage and into the courts.
The following newspaper accounts, transcribed from Andy Joseph’s scrapbook, outline MAD’s struggle to reinstate It’s a Colourful World.
*The terms ‘non-White’ and ‘Coloured’ appear in newspaper reports of the show. The cast consisted of South Africans of Indian descent.
- Natal Mercury, Thursday, 18 February 1971
- BUT REVUE CAN GO ON!
- Political ReporterShow had laughs but no hatred
- The Publications Control Board has banned the script of the satirical revue “It’s a Colourful World” – but not the show itself! The board’s chairman, Mr J. Kruger, was not very sure yesterday whether the show had been banned or not. At first he said it was “not true.”
- Then he checked and confirmed that the script of the entire revue had been banned. The producers of the show are to appeal against the decision which only comes into operation when it has been published in a Government Gazette. They have been told that all the scripts have to be sent to the Group Areas Board offices in Durban by Monday.
- …They (the producers) were told of the banning by officials of the Group Areas Board in Durban, after receiving a letter which read: “Kindly call at the Group Areas Branch Office, Masonic Grove, Durban, on 17/2/71 at 9 a.m. sharp re show ‘Colorful (sic) World’, and see Detective Warrant Officer van der Walt”. The letter was written on a page from an exercise book.
- Fifteen minutes before the show was due to start last night, the doors of the Bolton Hall were closed and there was no sign of activity inside. There was no queue to see the show.
- Meanwhile, critics in the show world have labelled the banning as a blow for South African theatre, and have pointed out that a gloomy future probably lies ahead for theatre in the country.
- The vice-chairman of the Young Progressives, Mr Trevor Moodie, said last night that the only motive for the banning he could think of was political. “There is nothing immoral, disgusting or perverted about it.”
- Natal Mercury, 18 February 1971
- By Doug MorrisonDaily News, Wednesday, 24 February 1971
- When I reviewed the show, on January 25, what struck me most about it was its lack of anything that could be construed as offensive except to someone who found it offensive to point out the flaws in a White-imposed system.
- Although its subject matter would appear to be perfect for expressing hatred, particularly for apartheid and whites, what was expressed was compassion and understanding.
- It was also very funny and the audience that night appreciated it for that at least.
- FUGARD ATTACKS SCRIPT BANNING
- By Roy ChristieDaily News, Thursday, 25 February 1971.
- ATHOL FUGARD, the distinguished South African playwright today pledged R50 toward the costs of the appeal against the banning of the script of “It’s a Colourful World” the Durban non-White musical revue.
- Speaking to me by telephone from Cape Town, Mr. Fugard said he regarded the banning of the script as “absolutely outrageous.”
- In his view the musical was quite inoffensive and, in fact, was characterised by “the qualities of understanding and compassion by these people, who after all are at the receiving end of colour prejudice”.
- Mr. Fugard is closely associated with “It’s a Colourful World”, for it was his personal dynamism which inspired members of M.A.D. – the Music and Drama group – to set about the creation of an original revue. While in Durban last July he exhorted the group to establish their own theatrical identity. “It’s a Colourful World” is the direct result of that appeal.
- Shows without words: A new art?
- Political Correspondent
- CAPE TOWN, Thursday. AN OPPOSITION MP predicted today that stage shows in South Africa might be reduced to silent mime if the Publications Board continues to ban scripts of productions but not the shows themselves.
- Mr. L. G. Murray, M.P. for Green Point and chairman of the United Party’s interior group in the Assembly, was referring to one of the board’s latest decisions – the banning of the script of a satirical revue in Durban.
- Mr Kruger said today that only the text of the show’s script had been submitted to the board – and that the board had only considered this script as a publication.
- He said that the board did not give reasons for a banning and no details were given of passages it objected to. When asked how a show could proceed without a script, Mr. Kruger said that was for the producers to decide.
- Mr. Murray said today that the board’s decision raised the interesting possibility for the theatre that shows might now be reduced to silent mime because of the banning of the script.
Then MAD decided to put on two performances of the show. The matter was still before the Courts and the banning had not yet been gazetted so performances were technically still legal. Nevertheless, re-opening the show was regarded as an act of defiance.
- Daily News (26) February 1971
- REVUE ON AGAIN FROM FRIDAY
- By Roy Christie
- THE HIT non-White musical, “It’s a Colourful World,” is to be presented to the public once again from Friday night onward while the script dispute with the censors goes on appeal.
The revue was staged on Friday, 26 February and Saturday, 27 February.
- The Natal Mercury – 3 March 1971
- BOARD TO SEE SHOW?
- Political Reporter
- THE Publications Control Board will investigate any further performances of the satirical revue, “It’s a Colourful World.” They banned the script a fortnight ago. …
- Chairman of the Board Mr. Jannie Kruger told me from Cape Town yesterday that if the show was being performed, and the cast was still using the banned script, even if only from memory, “then we will have to have a look at this.”
- …it seems likely that members of the Publications Control Board will be making a trip to Durban to see the show for themselves. If they felt that it was necessary they could then ban the revue as a stage show.
- …Mr. Francis told me that the decision to stage the show, which played to multi-racial houses, had been taken only after legal advice had been sought.
- …Referring to the fact that there had been no attempt on Friday or Saturday to stop the show, in spite of wide publicity, he said: “Mr. Kruger’s original comment that the script was banned but the show could go on, seems to have been correct.”
- …The producers of the show hope to take it on tour in Natal, and if possible, throughout the country.
Though MAD had taken the decision to proceed with the show, the banning had undermined the cast. Members felt intimidated and the show did not continue after the two performances on 26 and 27 February.
- Daily News, 8 March 1971.