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Small Change augurs bigger changes hopefully to come

Deborah Seddon

Small Change

Street theatre event

Starring children from the Eluxoweni Shelter

Drostdy Arch Lawns

Monday 30 June to Saturday 5 July 2003.

Anyone who has been to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival will be familiar with the competing groups of children who gather at the corners of roads singing Shosholoza for hours on end, vying for attention and for small change from festival-goers. Each year these children become a backdrop, their songs nothing more than a part of the fabric of a noisy festival town.

But this year a lecturer of the Rhodes Drama Department began a new initiative. Along with Uboom! Eastern Cape Drama Company members, Alex Sutherland has, since February this year, been facilitating drama workshops with children from the Eluxolweni Shelter for the street children of Rhini and Grahamstown. The result is Small Change, a 30-minute performance of real power and emotion performed on the lawns of the university.

Alex Sutherland explains: “This project was initiated as a means of using their performances and presence on our streets as a powerful voice to tell their stories, to remind locals and outsiders that these children are as much a part of the artistic community as those performing on established stages. Their stories need to be heard too.”

It was a cold and rainy morning when I went to see the performance on the Drostdy lawns. The children in the production, each in their Small Change T-shirts, radiated smiles and enthusiasm as they set up. Their ages ranged between 12 and 18.

Through song, dance, physical theatre, mime and drama the children performed the simple but compelling story of Mnyamezeli (meaning “survivor”), a child whose Rhini family depends on the income he earns from begging. His father is an alcoholic, his mother long-suffering; both have lost their jobs. One day Mnyamezeli fails to bring anything home and is beaten and thrown out of the house. The small child lies on the damp winter grass slowly becoming surrounded by children making the sounds of crickets and dogs. His eyes are full of fear.

He is alone, afraid and hungry. Taken under the wing of older boys he learns his trade on the violent and unpredictable streets: how to beg, what to say, how to steal, where to sleep, how to survive. The child is imprisoned for months, then released, free only to eke out a lonely existence. Eluxolweni (“place of hope”) Shelter presents an alternative and the production ends with his entry into their care. But this is no fairy tale: within the shelter, too, the effect of a competitive pressure for survival remains.

I talked with Alex Sutherland after the show; she stressed the positive effect of the initiative on the children involved. During the weekly workshops their silence and fear had changed into a sense of their ability to express themselves and talk about their own experiences. This was clear from the performance, which had a tangible energy, the authenticity of the experiences clearly evident. When a hat was passed around after the show for donations to the Eluxolweni Shelter, many of the members of the audience were visibly moved to tears by what they had seen.

The production is evidence of a trend clearly visible at this year’s festival: the staging of South African stories which have emerged into performance through collaboration between universities and deprived communities. Small Change shows a greater awareness of the community of Grahamstown and the need to recognise its place in the city’s annual festival.

For the city’s most vulnerable children this initiative of Alex Sutherland is welcome and significant. But this is only a beginning — addressing the problems faced by such children will require a steady year-round commitment from many members of the community.

The Eluxoweni Shelter has, since 1994, been the only child-care facility in the entire Makana District, providing 24-hour care for neglected, abused and abandoned children. The centre is home to 38 children and has reached capacity. For more information about Eluxolweni Shelter call (046) 622 2537 or (046) 622 4257.

11 June 2003

boontoe / to the top

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