Soweto Theatre. Picture: Gallo Images
Legendary theatre actors and actresses, socialites and public officials gathered on Friday as the much anticipated Soweto Theatre opened its doors.
With an aim to bring world-class drama to the heart of one of the historic townships in the country, the R150-million (14-million-euro, $18-million) playhouse is a celebration of whimsical architecture made up of three shiny cubes one blue, one red and one yellow built on land that would likely have become another of the many shantytowns ringing the economic capital Johannesburg.
The project aims to dismantle one of the most stubborn legacies left over from apartheid by bringing large black audiences to the theatre for the first time, 18 years after the elections that ended white-minority rule and brought Nelson Mandela to power.
"It should help us to bring down the walls which have separated our communities," said Ishmael Mkhabela, chair of the theatre's board.
"This building will make a mega-statement," he added.
"Having a facility on land which I am amazed was not invaded by people who seek informal housing but was preserved for such a wonderful project, which adds to our community a new platform for dialogue, self-expression, dreaming and envisioning the future we all aspire for as South Africans, this touches my soul and heart."
The theatre was designed to stand out from the monotonous rows of low-cost government dwellings built to meet the country's crushing need for affordable housing.
Its acting chief executive, Steven Sack, said he hopes the theatre will become a symbol of Soweto, a township of 1.5 million people that has been home to Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and was the scene of the 1976 Soweto uprising against apartheid policies.
"This is a photogenic, an iconic building," Sack said. "The theatre is a magnet. People will see what the new Soweto looks like."
Clara da Cruz Almeida, the original concept designer for the building, said the idea was to make it accessible to local residents.
"The design is completely oriented to pedestrians, which is the majority of South Africans. We tried to make it open with the completely clear glass, so the people when they walk they would see everything," she said.
"I don't want it to be like in other theatres that have got a skin on them and you go inside and you get lost. It should be like a naked body, you just adorn it somehow but everything is visible."
Initially scheduled to be finished in time for the 2010 World Cup, the theatre is opening two years behind schedule.
The board of directors says producers are already lining up to stage plays in its 436-seat main theatre and two smaller performance spaces.
The theatre will debut Friday with an adaptation of a 1954 story by Soweto writer Es'kia Mphahlele, "The Suitcase".
Famed Malian singer Salif Keita is scheduled to perform Sunday.
Tickets will cost between 40 and 60 rand (four and six euros, and $5 and $7).