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Musical About Apartheid Becomes Big Hit

May 6, 1987

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) _ The biggest stage hit in South Africa this year, playing to full houses at one of Cape Town’s top theaters, is a musical commemorating a mixed-race neighborhood demolished to make room for whites.

Four songs from ″District Six - The Musical″ are banned from the airwaves of the government-controlled South African Broadcasting Corp. But the show has won nightly standing ovations from multiracial audiences at the 650-seat Baxter Theater, a short drive from the district that remains a wasteland 20 years after bulldozers moved in.

One of the very few full-fledged musicals created in South Africa, ″District Six″ was written by David Kramer, a white from a conservative wine-growing town, and Taliep Petersen, a mixed-race musician who grew up in the district.

″We spent weeks just talking about what it was like to live in District Six,″ Kramer said in an interview. ″Then we started to create characters.″

Established by freed slaves in the 1830s, District Six evolved into a dilapidated but vibrant inner-city neighborhood, predominantly for coloreds - the South African term for people of mixed race.

In 1966, the national government declared it a whites-only district under the provisions of the Group Areas Act, the law that establishes segregated neighborhoods. Within 15 years virtually every building, except churches and mosques, was razed and more than 40,000 residents moved to distant suburbs.

The new, matchbox homes on the Cape Flats, says one character in the musical, have rooms ″so small you can’t even change your mind in them.″

So deep is the bitterness created by the evictions that few Cape Town whites or businesses want any part in entrenching an all-white neighborhood. The 250-acre area, crisscrossed by deserted streets, remains vacant except for a new technical school for whites and a few housing projects at the foot of Table Mountain.

The bitterness is conveyed in the script and songs of ″District Six,″ but the political message is interspersed with a love story that at times recalls ″West Side Story.″

The 21-song score, reflecting the variety of music that existed in the district in 1966, includes jazz, a capella harmonies, banjo tunes and the soul ballads that were emerging at the time from Detroit and other black recording centers in the United States.

The show opens with a biting number called, ″The Law, The Law,″ which suggests that not only neighborhoods and beaches, but even hell is ″reserved for whites.″

The powerful closing song, ″Seven Steps of Stone,″ is performed on a set depicting demolished slums. Its lyrics say:

″The children will revenge us

For better or for worse. ...

For they too have been broken

And scattered like the bricks

The stones, cement and concrete

That once was District Six.″

Both ″The Law, The Law″ and ″Seven Steps Of Stone″ are among the songs banned by the South African Broadcasting Corp.

Critics have been unanimous in their praise for the show and its energetic performers, who portray characters ranging from a pushcart fruit vendor to a transvestite night club emcee.

″The entire production has immortalized the music and people of District Six,″ wrote Marianne Thamm of the Cape Times. ″It is the definitive monument.″

″This bittersweet musical ranks among the finest spectacles produced on the South African stage in recent years,″ said Jean Fairbairn in The Argus newspaper.

Kramer said he and Petersen want the show to play in Cape Town for as long as possible. Then they hope to take the production to Johannesburg, the country’s biggest city, and possibly elsewhere in the country.

After a run in South Africa, they’d like to take the musical overseas.

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