In a theatre in Hillbrow group of homeless men turn up once a week, washed and brushed, and ready to begin their warm-up exercises.
The work is more than likely to be either an excerpt from a Shakespearean play, one of his 154 sonnets or a poem from the canon of English poets – D.H. Lawrence, TS Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Louis MacNeice or Emily Dickenson.
The group is called Johannesburg Awakening Minds (JAM).
JAM is the brainchild of Dorothy Ann Gould, director, lecturer and a notable actress in her own right, who has shared the stage with South African-born luminaries such as Anthony Sher and Janet Suzman.
At a friend’s suggestion, she visited a soup kitchen in the St Michel’s and St George’s parish in Mitchell Street, Hillbrow.
Many of these young men are all alone, far from family, sleeping rough, addicted to drugs and living in fear of their lives.
Gould soon realised that theatre and Shakespeare offered more. “In Shakespeare’s plays they discover a huge receptacle that can hold all the emotions they need to release; the rage, the feelings of abandonment, of fear and of hoped-for love.”
Since 2013 they have been performing on street corners and in shelters, earning a few rands to pay for a bed in a homeless shelter and a bite to eat. Soon they were being asked to perform at high schools such as St Stithians, or at the Mayor’s banquet and even at the Johannesburg Theatre.
Today, although some still live on the streets, many have agents and get bit parts as extras in TV soaps or in student films. Others have found new artistic outlets in painting and have sold their works at markets.
Some don’t make it. Four dropped out and one was murdered. Others return to their families. Gould is happy when people feel able to go back home.
“Something has changed in their hearts and that’s good,” she says.
Gould says she teaches them articulation but never tries to change their voice or accent, rather letting the feeling drive the rhythm and the pregnant pause.
Some performers stood out. One is Michael Mazibuko, who performed the famous soliloquy from Hamlet To be or not to be. As someone who had himself contemplated suicide, the poem spoke to him.
“He will never think of committing suicide again,” says Gould.
They perform regularly at the Pizza e Vino restaurant in Auckland Park and are happy to accept invitations to perform at high schools and other venues.
You can find them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/johannesburgawakeningminds/