Hillbrowfication was created in 2018 by choreographer Constanza Macras at the Hillbrow theatre in Johannesburg, in collaboration with choreographer Lisi Estarás. The show brought together several generations of performers, with a cast composed of 21 Hillbrow children and youths aged 5 to 19 at the time and three professional dancers based in Berlin and Johannesburg.
Four years after premiering the show, and after several international tours, some of the cast members who were kids at the time are now teenagers. Those who were teenagers are now young adults. Some still live in Hillbrow and some have moved away to other neighbourhoods. »As time goes by, we grow and I think the show grows with us. We understand it now in different ways than we did before. We also understand the world differently, our mind set evolves«, states cast member Nompilo Hadebe.
Today, we look back together at the creation process and we reflect on how the experiences lived during the last four years have imprinted our ideas about the work, about Hillbrow and the future. The text that follows is a trace of conversations between Hillbrow-based cast members Nompilo Hadebe, Tshepang Lembelo, Jackson Magotlane, Tisetso Maselo, Pearl Sigwagwa and me, Tamara Saphir, a Berlin-based Argentinian artist who collaborated in the project as a dramaturg.

Space tales, future cities

Hillbrow is part of Johannesburg, South Africa. Historically planned as a district to be showcased, it was a whites-only zone for some time during the 1970s. Featuring beautiful parks, skyscrapers and cafes, it later became a relatively mixed neighbourhood and a hotspot for an emerging black middle class. Towards the end of the Apartheid era, the middle-class inhabitants rapidly deserted the neighbourhood, fleeing to the suburbs. A trend of hijacking buildings grew. With the deterioration of the neighbourhood, prices drastically plummeted and Hillbrow attracted a growing number of African immigrants looking for cheaper accommodation. During the 1990s, the area became a shell of its former self, riddled with crime, gang activity and xenophobic violence. Since then, Hillbrow has often been perceived as a synonym for criminality, violence and poverty.

Tshepang: I really like the way Hillbrowfication reflects how really everything happens there. Because Hillbrow is not only violent, there are also positive aspects to it. There is a sense of community and a lot of organisations that help people. It’s very diverse. There are people from different countries living here, especially other African countries (Mozambique, Namibia, Congo, Nigeria...). This is a good thing for us South Africans because we can learn other people’s cultures, how to respect them and how to talk to each other.
(Four years ago) Hillbrow was a bit more violent than it is now. I used to get mugged all the time on the streets. It was very hectic! But I feel since the lockdown things got more quiet somehow... there were a lot of police and soldiers going around.

Nompilo and Jackson disagree. They still live in Hillbrow, like Tshepang, but they think it didn’t change so much in the past few years.

Jackson even thinks that: in some aspects, it got worse. But then our mind set on the place is different now.

Pearl elaborates this idea further: As a child Hillbrow was for me just a place full of people. But as a teenager, with a new awareness I developed new fears. You start hearing about dangers and drugs, for example. And you look at the life of the people who live there and realise it is a poor life! Because they live squashed in small apartments and most buildings aren’t working properly. Life conditions are quite bad. So the question for me was rather: why do we have to be OK with this? Maybe we can’t change much, but we can ask ourselves: how can we make this better? Those were some questions I had at that time (...) And I think some of those questions appeared in the show. With a lot of fantasy and humour in the mix, but they are there...

Nompilo: For example, from thinking about the crime rate here we ended up with a story about phones growing out of our hands so that nobody can steal them!

As Pearl and Nompilo describe how biographical material became part of some of the fictional narratives of the show, the conversation moves on to the rehearsal process and how it was to work together.

Creating the show

Tshepang: I remember in the beginning of the rehearsals we would just sit and talk a lot to each other about Hillbrow, about the dancers living here, about the future... I really liked this. The process of creating the show was challenging, but it also felt like we were really free. Anything that was going through our minds at the time, we could explore it on stage and share it with the people in that space.

Jackson: The process was weird at first. We were doing so many things and we didn’t know how they were going to come together. But as time went on I started understanding how the play is moving from this to that.

Pearl: I discovered things about my body and what it can do. I remember struggling with things one day and waking up the next day wanting to do it better. It gave me the confidence that I should not limit myself because I’m not a professional at something. The team encouraged everybody’s different abilities and talents. (We could then) grow in that space and showcase that, and stand out. It was also good for health! I became a less tired person after pulling off that long show! I don’t know if the others will speak about this, but I’m actually pretty sure we became better at school. Rehearsal was a safe space also! We were like family. It was an environment where we worked with each other and just allowed each other to be.

Nompilo: The group of people that came together to do this piece embraced each other and supported each other, with all the differences of age and other things. Often the older ones were taking care of the younger ones.

Pearl: And these dynamics that we developed in the theatre went beyond it, into our lives. If one was going through a phase or taking a wrong turn, we would gather up and help out. We support each other. And this somehow spills into the community, through the parents, for example. I don’t say they became friends, but they did become aware of each other too: they helped out when the kids were in need, did food parcels when corona hit, etc. So this dynamic didn’t end with us.

The way Pearl and Nompilo talk about the group dynamics during the creation process reminds me of so many discussions about »politics of care« that proliferate today in the art scene and the academic world. I am amazed by how the young performers spontaneously connect the artistic work with a developing relationship that exceeds it, bringing to the foreground in a very concrete way some of the ever haunting questions about arts and politics.

The future creeping from behind

In »Science fiction and the future«, author Ursula Le Guin reports that »it seems that the Quechua-speaking people of the Andes (...) figure that because the past is what you know, you can see it – it’s in front of you, under your nose. This is a mode of perception rather than action, of awareness rather than progress. (...) The future lies behind – behind your back, over your shoulder. The future is what you can’t see, unless you turn around and kind of snatch a glimpse. And then sometimes you wish you hadn’t, because you’ve glimpsed what’s sneaking up on you from behind.«

The futuristic approach to this project gave us some freedom to think and articulate feelings and thoughts about our present at the time. Four years later, some of »the future« is already behind us. Or rather, it is in front of our noses – as it became our past, if we stick with Le Guin’s image. As we talk together, we realise that time goes at different speeds for us. We laugh about the fact that four years does not seem such a long time for middle-aged me. Whereas for the young members of the cast, it feels extremely long.

Tisetso: Our show talks about the future, but I feel that the future is basically happening now! I don’t know how to explain it... How technology is advancing and slowly but surely taking over. For example, we used to talk to our teachers. Now we take our homework on social media! I did not think technology would take over like it does.We cannot go anywhere now without having our phones with us. You don’t go to the bank any more, you use an app in your phone to transfer money. You don’t go to your friend’s to visit, instead you video call or text if you miss them. And you don’t go anywhere without taking pictures with your phone. Our memories are now stored in our phones instead of in our hearts and our minds.

Tshepang: Four years ago the way I saw the future was less technological, less digital... and then I saw how the metaverse was coming! Everything is going to be more technological and that is going to break connections between people.

Pearl: When I think of the future now I actually get scared!
When the pandemic started, we were home and it was ok. But then my mum got really sick and hospitalised, and then my sister was really sick at home because we couldn’t afford to have a second family member in the hospital, and then I thought: anything can happen!
I hear a lot of people talking about going back to living the way we lived before, but nobody is talking about new ways to live with this. I think they are thinking backwards: we have to accept that things change and find ways to make it work.

I wonder if Pearl’s image of some people »thinking backwards« could be pointing in the same direction as what author Naomi Klein conceptualises as toxic nostalgia – »a violent clinging to a toxic past and a refusal to face a more entangled and interrelational future« – which would be at the root of so many of our democratic, geopolitical and climate crises.

Pearl: Actually, when I think of all the possible scary Covid variants that could come (...) and this survival mode of every man for himself... I think of zombies! Yes, today if I had to do a piece about the future, I think I would have zombies in it!
In South Africa when we had apartheid we had black people on one side, white people on the other side and so on... Now people are treating each other differently according to their position about this whole vaccination thing, and they are just not able to hear each other out. And the vaccinated people are allowed in certain areas, the unvaccinated in others. In this country, these kinds of things are triggering and scary! It’s making us relive that history of exclusion and separation.

Nompilo: The future is darker for me now. I have a harder time envisioning a brighter future today than I did 4 years ago!

Tshepang rebounds on a relative optimism: I think in the future people are going to be much more broad with their thinking. Now everybody is getting educated on certain things, everybody is reading... It gives hope that people will understand each other without stereotypes. During the last years we also experienced Black Lives Matter everywhere around the world. This brought awareness of how black people are being attacked. But it was not only about black people. Some white people that are not racist also feel attacked because nobody believes they are not racist. So it was all hectic, and I wonder, how will this bring unity, eventually.
I realise that the future I want to see in Hillbrow is people living in harmony, in peace... people coming from different places living together, building community. I want to see unity and love in the diversity. Somehow, I think these things are already building up here now, but I feel that it could be more and more.

On fictions and realities

»The future I want to see...«: Tshepang’s way of formulating his thought brings me once again to Le Guin’s image of the future as being, by definition, what we cannot see. When we look at what we can’t see, what we see is the stuff inside our heads. Our thoughts and our dreams, the good ones and the bad ones.
Is that also the »stuff« our fictions are made of, as manifestations of the endless possible recombinations of elements from our experiences and reality/realities?
We talk further, about the specific power of fictions, and wonder about their agency in reality/realities.

Nompilo: I believe that if I can draw a picture about a brighter future and hang it somewhere it might put certain ideas with the people who see it. In that sense I think art can really change the world!

Pearl: I think imagination and fantasy give people a chance to rethink reality. And also the relief of getting out for a moment of what is difficult and sad and so on. When we did the piece, it had an impact on the kids and families that came to see it. People loved to see us kids ourselves imagining things to be different, wanting to change things around. It gave them something.

Nompilo talks about a scene in the show that she loves, when she shares the stage with Lwadlile Thabethe (aged 5 at the time):
I have a monologue and he is dancing next to me, he gives a soft and powerful energy. At that point in the piece, I feel that we have given up as human beings (given in to what the aliens wanted from us, in the fiction of the piece). It feels nostalgic. Because I feel that, as human beings in the real world, we also gave up on a lot of things... we let the politicians decide things that make no sense. But in the piece, right after this moment we will fight. And there is something of that energy that makes me think that if we could stand together for real as we stand together there onstage, and fight together, things like racism and xenophobia wouldn’t exist. We could deal with things like coronavirus fast and easily!

This is also Tshepang’s favourite moment in the piece – for him it’s about unity, about standing together: Different people, from different countries, what if we come together and manage to build harmony and peace? That is very special for me. Unity still stands, even through all restlessness and different opinions.


TAMARA SAPHIR, studied dance and theatre in Buenos Aires and Paris, where she also achieved a Masters degree in Philosophy. She has lived in Berlin since 2009 and works as a performer and dramaturge for companies such as Constanza Macras/Dorkypark, Ariel Efraim Ashbel and Friends, Eva Meyer-Keller, Juli Reinartz, Santiago Blaum and Dirk Cieslak/Lubricat. She founded the performance collective ‘TnT’ with her sister Tatiana Saphir. She also worked as a choreographic advisor for theatre projects with the Junges DT and Showcase Beat Le Mot a.o.