The Interview Series #1: Dorothy Ann Gould on her Shakespeare theatre group for the homeless in Hillbrow – Johannesburg Awakening Minds (JAM)

The Interview Series is a new Shakespeare ZA initiative: a collection of conversations with contributors to Shakespeare in South Africa, posted monthly.

On Monday the 21st of August, Kirsten Dey met with South African actor, director and teacher Dorothy Ann Gould at The Hillbrow Theatre, where she attended the Monday morning rehearsal of Johannesburg Awakening Minds (JAM) – a Shakespeare theatre group for the homeless in Hillbrow, which was founded by Dorothy in July 2012.

How would you describe Johannesburg Awakening Minds (JAM) and what it entails?

I would say it is about life skills and communication skills. I started with the group in 2012 and I found incredibly quickly that through breathing exercises, creative writing …  their confidence suddenly improved. We started with Shakespeare very early on because I believe that Shakespeare’s plays, especially the tragedies, are huge receptacles for pain that can help a person heal because when you feel that powerful language passing through you, you can release your anger or your pain, or your joy. And then, of course the extremity of a person standing at the traffic lights begging for food but reciting a monologue from, say, Hamlet … people started giving them more money! So, we realised that that was a kind of shock tactic that we must use, apart from the fact that I love Shakespeare, and that it healed me at the age of 14 when I came into contact with it. And so that is what we did. And the more that powerful language flowed through them, the more their confidence grew, the more their voices came out. So, for me, the class has been about saying to them and teaching them: “You have the right to speak. Despite your circumstances, you have the right to stand on mother earth. You have the right to be a citizen here.” After that, we worked on getting them ID documents, building them up one step at a time, to try to make sure that they are not below the radar anymore.

You said JAM was founded in 2012. What was the process that led to your bringing the group together?

Well there is a lovely dancer called Cinda Eatok and she uses dance to work with the homeless, and she phoned me one day to ask if I would like to help, and at that stage I was overcommitted but it stuck in the back of my head. She said that there was a group of men in Mitchell Street in Hillbrow who met once a week, on a Monday, for tea and a sandwich at The Good Shepherd Church. They have a prayer group and a hot meal for about 80 to 90 people every Friday and they provide tea and sandwiches every Monday. They have been doing this for about 24 years now. And so I got myself there on a Monday and I met this wonderful woman called June Jardine, and she had tried all sorts of things with them, like creative writing and painting, but somehow nothing was really happening, so she said I could take over and focus on acting with them. Since then, we have been meeting every Monday morning, and we have become a theatre group. So, that is how we started – how Johannesburg Awakening Minds – the name they chose to give themselves – was founded! Within four months, we did our first concert, which was a mixture of Shakespeare and gumboot dancing! And from there it just grew every few months until we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

How do you conduct your classes? What do you focus on?

We focus on breathing … a lot of them breathe very shallowly. They don’t breathe for performance. If you breathe for performance, right down to the diaphragm, you are clearing the cobwebs out. And then we do exercises for tone; we do singing to open up the throat. Voice always has a psychological component, so of course for these men and women who didn’t feel that they had the right to speak … they were not letting their voices out and now they are. And when they stand on that stage at the end of every concert, each person says his or her name and for me, that is important, because we never are interested in the people standing at the traffic lights. We close our windows. We get nervous. And they are lovely, lovely people. And people need to be loved … So, I try to create a sense of community in each class. I really focus on that. I try to just say: “Let’s love each other, and let’s be a team. Watch each other’s backs on the street and on stage.” So, it has been about support rather than isolated defensiveness.

You spoke about the importance of Shakespeare’s works as receptacles for emotion. How do the members of JAM react to Shakespeare?

They are not that interested initially, but the sheer power of the language takes them over, and by the end they have tears running down their faces. Of course, I choose pieces like Edmund’s soliloquy from King Lear: “Why bastard? Wherefore base? … Why brand they us with base? With baseness? Bastardy? Base, base?”… things that really touch them. Things they can relate to. They have rediscovered a passion for life through Shakespeare.

Since JAM was founded, where have they performed?

They have performed for Arts Alive, the launch luncheon, the mayor’s culinary international banquet … We have performed twice at Space.Com at the Johannesburg Theatre. We have performed at POPArt Theatre in Maboneng. And now we have our own little space at Piza é Vino in Auckland Park, and every few months, that is where we perform. There is a little open-air stage. We are waiting for summer now! We put tables and chairs and umbrellas outside; people give their donations and the guys perform. They used to perform for 20 minutes, and now it is over an hour, so it is a good, healthy performance. And they have performed four times on Classic FM. They have been recorded by the BBC, and that was out a couple of months ago. So, they are getting known, in fact, all over the world. Somebody from The Globe came to see them, to see whether they could take the whole group to The Globe because he said that they do not know of any other homeless theatre groups performing Shakespeare … But it is a tall order to take the core group to London to The Globe, and I wouldn’t want to leave any behind. But the goal is there!

So far, you have mentioned a few works of Shakespeare that they have performed. What has governed your choice of play or text?

Well, I have to be honest, you know, in saying that I am not familiar with plays like Pericles, and Cymbeline and Timon of Athens. So, first of all, it was about using the tragedies to help heal them, and then I just wanted them to have a laugh, so we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I had directed three times before. It was important that I used things that I knew well, and things I knew I could really help with, like Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example. Of course, they have branched out into other work now. They have all been on Generations as extras. Three of them have had speaking parts on Generations. Sipho was in Akin Omotoso’s latest movie called Vaya. One of them has had two commercials and a part in a movie, as well as a lead in an SABC 1 series. But the other thing that is just as important to me is the fact that some of them have gone home to their families and are now not using acting, but because of their confidence, are able to do other jobs and are able to support their families. So, they have self-respect, and that is the thing that is important.

What have the effects of JAM been on the audiences – and on you?

Let’s leave me to last! I would really encourage your readers to see them perform. The audience usually have tears running down their faces, whether it is a comedy or not. Just to see the absolute joy on the guys’ faces … standing in front of an audience and having people clap for them. A lot of audience members have spoken to me and said: “I will never be able to look at another homeless man in the same way.” For myself, I have to admit that sometimes I feel inadequate. I wish I was a therapist … I wish I was a social worker. But I do find that if somebody needs to go to rehab to address a drug problem or an alcohol problem, I find somebody here at this wonderful Hillbrow Theatre, run by Gerard Bester. It is hard driving into Hillbrow, but I have many protectors … It is a huge commitment on my part, but it has given me great joy, and I love them. I don’t have children of my own, you see … They’re my naughty sons.

What would be your moment of pride with this initiative?

Certainly seeing them on the BBC because I have spent a lot of the last twenty years working in London. To go from where they have come from to being featured on the BBC Business page is no small feat. And then when young Michael Mazibuko translated Sonnet 25 into deep Zulu and it was featured by the BBC, my heart wanted to burst with pride. When he says: “This is the greatest moment of my life” … I think: “Well, yes, it is for me too!”

Are there any upcoming performances that you would like our readers at Shakespeare ZA to know about?

Yes! We are working on The Taming of the Shrew, and we are hoping that we will be able to perform that at the end of November at Piza é Vino in Auckland Park. We will keep you updated!

What are your aspirations for the group going forward?

If you had asked me three years ago, I would have said to get them to the Grahamstown Festival. That is still one of my aspirations but for that, we would need sufficient funding. I would say that there are 16 core members, and to do something like that in Grahamstown requires money for accommodation, food, a lot of things. More than that, I just wish high schools would say: “Come, we will give you R1000. Perform to inspire our Grade 10s and 12s.” If those kids who have a much more protected environment can see what these men are capable of, I think they would be incredibly inspired. I think these men are inspiring … they have been inspired, are being inspired, and can now inspire. And that gives them purpose.

Throughout the morning, a few members of JAM were asked how theatre and Shakespeare makes them feel:

Lwazi: Shakespeare makes me feel good, because it is an outlet … getting into that moment and telling somebody else’s story. Some of the things we talk about have something to do with us. We can relate to them.

Siphukazi: Theatre heals souls … and that is why I want to be an actress because I want to be able to reach out to people in that close space and setting.

Gift: We feel like we are special because all those years you grow up in the street and you don’t know what you’re going to do. You think about stealing, staying alive. But now, we have something else – something to do – something that makes us feel special. I feel proud – very proud.

Michael: Theatre allows me to breathe … It is life-giving. Shakespeare and theatre make me feel alive.