Performing Christ

South African Protest Theatre and the Theological Dramatic Theory of Hans Urs von Balthasar

by Marthinus Havenga (Author)
Monographs XIV, 232 Pages


In the latter part of the twentieth century, against the backdrop of the Sharpeville Massacre and the Soweto Uprising, theatre became a central means of artistic resistance in apartheid South Africa. One of the most significant plays from this time was Woza Albert!, which was created and staged by the actor-duo Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema, with the help and creative input of the renowned theatre-maker and political activist, Barney Simon. What made this protest play so powerful and provocative was the fact that it restaged the Christ-drama, as presented in the Gospels, in the context of apartheid South Africa. This book sets out to explore this performance of Christ during one of the darkest hours in South Africa’s history, by turning to – and offering an in-depth investigation of – the theological dramatic theory of the Swiss Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Balthasar and the Scope of Theology
  • Chapter 2 The Theatre Stage and the World Stage
  • Chapter 3 The Drama of Redemption
  • Chapter 4 South African Protest Theatre
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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As mentioned in the Introduction, the roots of this book lie in an end-of-term school outing to the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg, many years ago. I wish to thank Linda van Niekerk, the teacher who organized this excursion and first introduced me – and countless others – to the South African protest theatre tradition.

I furthermore want to express my gratitude to all those who, in later years, not only instilled in me a passion for theology, but also encouraged me to consider how a topic such as protest theatre could be explored theologically. In this regard, a special word of thanks is owed to John de Gruchy, who initially introduced me to the field of theological aesthetics over tea at Volmoed, and Robert Vosloo, who oversaw this project in its first gestation as a doctoral dissertation and continues to be a wonderful mentor, conversation partner and friend.

Other scholars who played an invaluable role in the conception and development of this book include Graham Ward, who graciously invited me and my wife to spend a term at Christ Church, Oxford, in the early stages of the project, and Alexander Deeg, who served as our host during a very productive research stay in Leipzig, Germany.

In many ways, theology is about friendship, and I am grateful to all those who have been companions on my theological journey so far. I especially want to thank the inspiring group of upcoming theologians who form part of our reading group in systematic theology, including Khegan Delport, Calvin Ullrich, Kefas Umaru, Hanzline Davids, Karola Radler, Tayla Minnaar, Ashwin Thyssen, Heinrich Nieuhaus, Louis van der Riet and Helgard Pretorius.

As a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology at the Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University, it is a joy to work with and learn from colleagues such as Dion Forster, Henry Mbaya, Nadia Marais, Sipho Mahokoto, Lisel Joubert, Desmond Lambrechts and Wilma Riekert. I am also thankful for the opportunity ←xi | xii→to work with Pieter van der Walt and Bridget Leibbrandt at the Research Office of the Western Cape Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church.

A word of thanks is owed to Peter Lang Publishers, especially Tony Mason, for undertaking the publication of this book.

Last but not least, I wish to thank my wife, Angelique, for her endless support, encouragement and love, and for showing me, on a daily basis, what the ‘performance of Christ’ is all about. It is with a grateful heart that I dedicate this book to her.

Marthinus J. Havenga
Lent, 2021


Works by Hans Urs von Balthasar

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More than a mere instrument to be used in the worship of God, the body is also a site and weapon of protest, as we see in art and theatre both sacred and profane.

– Frank C. Senn1

Theology … meets us at every turn in our literature, it is the secret assumption, too axiomatic to be distinctly professed, of all our writers; nor can we help assuming it ourselves without the most unnatural vigilance.

– John Henry Newman2

South African Protest Theatre

Throughout history, it has often been seen how the most abhorrent realities can serve as a setting and stimulus for some of the most inspired works of art, and how the most terrible of situations and darkest of hours can call forth the Muses of Parnassus and give rise to some of the most powerful and transformative artistic creations. This has also been the case in a country such as South Africa, where institutionalized apartheid reigned supreme for nearly five decades in the twentieth century.

Amidst the discrimination and dehumanization effected by the apartheid state, South Africa saw a remarkable increase in rich artistic works, through which artists endeavoured to expose, oppose and dismantle the evils of the day. The realities of apartheid, the struggle for freedom and the promise of a better tomorrow indeed engendered, in the words of John ←1 | 2→de Gruchy, a ‘veritable explosion of art in all its many and different variations’,3 as it was recognized that the arts can speak a liberating language and help bring about transformation and hope in a country desperately in need thereof.

When considering this explosion of artistic activity during the apartheid years, it is interesting to note that one art form which, in particular, rose to prominence amidst and in response to the atrocities committed in South Africa at the time is that of the theatre. Especially in the latter part of the twentieth century, against the backdrop of the Sharpeville Massacre and the Soweto Uprising, the performance of drama texts became one of the central means of artistic resistance in South Africa, as various playwrights, directors and actors from different strands of society created powerful theatre productions that confronted the realities of life under apartheid head-on. Due to the subject matter of these plays, which were typically staged in community centres, church halls and fringe theatre auditoriums (such as the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg), those involved, including the audience members who attended performances, were often victimized, harassed and even detained by the South African police force. The authorities also regularly censored and banned productions. Yet, despite severe opposition from the apartheid government, these playwrights, directors and actors relentlessly continued to create and stage works that challenged the status quo and vocally stated what many South Africans knew to be the truth but were often too scared to say themselves. And people listened, from all over the world.

These plays, created and performed during the heyday of the apartheid years, could be viewed and described as works of protest theatre. Their function was to protest – first, against the evils of apartheid that affected the lives of millions of South Africans on a daily basis, and second, against injustice in a broader and more universal sense, as the playwrights, directors and actors involved knew that the ills they were speaking out against were not confined to their own country but affected humanity at large. Another reason why these productions could be viewed and described as works of ←2 | 3→protest theatre has to do with the etymological roots of the word ‘protest’. The Latin word, from which the English word ‘protest’ stems, protestari (pro- + testari), refers to an outward or public testimony. And this is what these protest plays also aimed to provide. Far from only being vehicles of revolt, decrying the iniquities in South Africa and beyond, most of these productions concurrently aimed to attest to that which could be considered good, true and beautiful in the world.

My first exposure to these anti-apartheid protest plays occurred while I was still at school in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, when we were taken on an end-of-semester outing to the Market Theatre in Newtown. On this occasion, we saw Athol Fugard’s 1969 production, Boesman and Lena, which vividly depicts the dreadful realities of apartheid South Africa by giving an account of the tragic existence of a so-called ‘coloured’ couple who have been forcefully removed from their home by the apartheid authorities and were now aimlessly wandering through the Swartkops mudflats outside Port Elizabeth. This first encounter with anti-apartheid protest theatre made a lasting impression on me, also as someone who had grown up after South Africa’s first democratic elections. Until this point, I was under the impression that works of art, whether music, film, fine art or theatre, primarily belonged to the realm of leisure and entertainment, presenting people with the opportunity to momentarily forget about and escape from the realities of everyday life. However, after seeing Boesman and Lena, I became aware of the way in which the arts, and especially the theatre, could be used to portray, uncover and speak out against the injustices in the world; how it could give a voice to the voiceless and challenge the wrongs in society. For me, this was an ‘art awakening’, to use the words of Nicholas Wolterstorff, who had a similar experience one Sunday afternoon in the mid-1960s when he heard an African-American ‘work song’ over the University of Michigan radio station for the first time.4

Following this initial exposure to South African protest theatre, I began visiting the Market Theatre as often as possible. I also began spending many hours in the excellent Africana bookstore, opposite the theatre on Mary ←3 | 4→Fitzgerald Square, which stocked copies of most of the plays that were being staged across the road. These visits to the Market Theatre continued after I finished school and moved from Johannesburg to Stellenbosch to pursue my theological studies. Whenever I came home for the holidays, I would go and see the productions that were being performed at the Market Theatre. As was the case with Boesman and Lena, this would often include newly commissioned productions of earlier protest plays, which, while stemming from the dark years of apartheid, remained disturbingly relevant to the current situation in the country.

From early on, one of the aspects that fascinated me the most about these productions, besides the way in which they witnessed to, spoke out against and attempted to help transform the sociopolitical realities of the country, was the fact that many of the plays’ plots were saturated with religious themes and imagery, and often referred to and even retold biblical narratives. It indeed became clear that there is a ‘strong predilection for religious discourse’ in many of these theatre pieces, to use the words of Martin Orkin.5

Although I was curious about why this was the case, and how these religious discourses functioned within these works, I did not make any conscious connections between the theology that I was studying at university and the theatre productions that I was attending while at home. Stellenbosch and Newtown, the Theological Faculty and the Market Theatre, seemed worlds apart. As the early North-African theologian Tertullian might have asked: ‘What has Newtown to do with Stellenbosch?’6 Towards the end of my studies, this neat distinction between theology and the world of protest theatre was, however, profoundly challenged when I went to see one of the most important and politically potent protest plays from the apartheid years that was being performed at the Market Theatre during the holiday. This play was the 1981 production, Woza Albert!, created by ←4 | 5→the actor-duo Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema, with the help and creative input of the political activist, director and co-founder of the Market Theatre, Barney Simon.

What made Woza Albert! such a significant and provocative work, also for me as a theological student, was the fact that it retells the story of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, as found in the Gospels, so that it takes place in South Africa during the apartheid years. Woza Albert! is indeed an imaginative reiteration of the Christ-narrative, with Jesus – or Morena, as he is called in Sesotho – arriving in apartheid South Africa to preach the Good News to the poor and to liberate the oppressed who are suffering under the apartheid regime. In the play, this ‘performance’ of Christ leads to strong opposition from the South African government, who imprisons him on Robben Island, the same prison where Nelson Mandela was being held captive. It also eventually leads to his death, not by means of a cross, but by a nuclear bomb that is dropped on his head (which, in the process, blows up the whole of Cape Town and Table Mountain). As in the Gospels, this is, however, not the end of the drama of Christ’s mission on earth. After three days, Morena is brought back to life, and in the climactic final scene of the play, he begins to raise a number of black leaders who also died while fighting against apartheid – leaders such as Steve Biko, Lilian Ngoyi and Albert Luthuli. Hence, the play’s name, Woza Albert!, which can be translated as ‘come forth’ or ‘raise up’ Albert from Sesotho.


XIV, 232
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (August)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XIV, 232 pp.

Biographical notes

Marthinus Havenga (Author)

Marthinus J. Havenga (PhD, Stellenbosch University) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology at the Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University. He has published articles in the fields of theological aesthetics, historical and constructive theology, and liturgical studies, and has co-edited the volumes Theology from Below: Contributions from Emerging Scholars and Broken Bodies and Redemptive Tables: The Lord’s Supper and Its Theological, Historical and Socio-Political Dimensions.


Title: Performing Christ