Mwenya Kabwe, Sarah Elizabeth Charles, Ruthie Osterman and Pedro Granato are the lead artists in 'Babylon: Beyond Borders', now on at the Market Theatre Lab. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mwenya Kabwe, Sarah Elizabeth Charles, Ruthie Osterman and Pedro Granato are the lead artists in 'Babylon: Beyond Borders', now on at the Market Theatre Lab. Picture: SUPPLIED

Ponte in Johannesburg; The antique building of the federal police in São Paulo; The Twin Towers in New York. Grenfell Tower in London: These buildings are linked to traumatic events. They evoke news-making, critical socio-political subject matters and they represent the meaningful stories of their respective communities.

Used in reference to the symbolic and contentious biblical text of the Tower of Babel, they are iconic sky-scraping towers with deep and unfolding histories representative of diverse ethnicities, migration and diasporic experiences.   

The images, sounds, narratives and movements that the four towers conjure are brought together simultaneously in a ground-breaking global theatre project called Babylon: Beyond Borders. This is an international collaboration between Johannesburg’s Market Theatre Lab, New York’s Harlem Stage, São Paulo’s Pequeno Ato and London’s Bush Theatre.

Towering dispute: Mandisa Mgeyi and Dintshitile Mashile portray Ponte City residents in an altercation during a rehearsal of ‘Babylon Joburg’ at the Market Theatre Lab. Picture: IRIS DAWN PARKER
Towering dispute: Mandisa Mgeyi and Dintshitile Mashile portray Ponte City residents in an altercation during a rehearsal of ‘Babylon Joburg’ at the Market Theatre Lab. Picture: IRIS DAWN PARKER

These four theatres, deeply rooted in their communities, collaborate and explore their relationship to Babylon and its implications, as well as ideas of home, exile, migration and language. The result is a performance that happens simultaneously in the four cities and projected via live stream for local, international and online audiences.

Each theatre appointed a lead artist to devise the work.  The lead artists are theatre maker and academic Mwenya Kabwe, who teaches at the Market Theatre Lab; artistic director of Pequeno Ato, Pedro Granato; Harlem Stage’s composer and musician, Sarah Elizabeth Charles and Ruthie Osterman for the Bush Theatre.

Through the Bush Theatre’s Up Next programme, Osterman has been given the leadership role of taking over the theatre as artistic director for a season. Osterman is the brainchild behind the fresh, ambitious and vital Babylon: Beyond Borders project. The impetus for it is to forge creative, political and personal connections.

“I am very much interested in intercultural dialogue and international collaborations — connecting our community to other communities around the world,” Osterman says.

“My personal impetus is also the doubt that I have about my profession. I’m always questioning my art and the meaning of theatre. Therefore I want to make theatre which will serve something bigger than the theatre itself,” she says. 

“In this project, I was inspired by the image of the burning squares of the Arab Spring and the idea of things happening simultaneously. I was thinking, can we go beyond the physical borders and share a digital space on screen, share a creation and explore the possibility of a creative encounter? 

“The word encounter is crucial. I believe in the power of the encounter,” says Osterman.

An encounter has transformative possibilities. In this one, each lead artist brings with them the socio-political baggage of their location. From issues of land, belonging and xenophobia in SA to Brexit in the UK; from Brazil’s far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro winning the presidential election to Donald Trump’s US.  

In devising the project, the lead artists met once in London for a week’s workshop and complemented the process with weekly Skype calls. The collision of ideas and stories and the confrontation of hard-hitting topics by these theatre makers of the global north and south, with one creative goal, is already a transformative, political act.

The Bolsonaro regime has Granato worried for the future of his expanding family. His response as an artist is being part of Brazil’s cultural-political resistance. He brings revolution to the project.

Charles brings her evocative and ambient music with a jazzy core and inspirations that include the Warsan Shire poem, Home, to highlight New York’s struggle with racial profiling, nationalism and border control.

Osterman comes with stories of the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017 to draw attention to themes of memory, immigration and community.

Kabwe, whose experimental theatre work often interrogates space, migration and one’s place in the world, brings bodies to the project and a perspective of Johannesburg as a city of migrants.

“We have the biggest cast made up of 14 second-year Market Lab students. We’re bringing people relaying their different relations to Ponte from a distance, capturing the range and complexities of Johannesburg’s migrants. That this range is represented in the room, feeding into the content of the project is significant,” Kabwe says.

Part of the challenge, she says, was to make something coherent to give audiences a glimpse into each of the four locations.

“What we struggled with was how to represent Johannesburg to people who are not here. So it’s an interesting creative challenge to have a local and a simultaneous international audience,” Kabwe says.

The logistics of putting the project together were challenging too. But the ambition of Babylon: Beyond Borders signals the evolution of theatre and theatre-making with the potential of creating new audiences. It’s a game-changing endeavour that wins for merely existing.   

Babylon: Beyond Borders plays at the Market Theatre Lab until February 16. The Lab is partnering with the Market Photo Workshop to offer local audiences a photography exhibition exploring the same themes in conjunction with the live performance.