The children setting the stage for a united Hillbrow

 
 
 

Hillbrow is a neighbourhood clouded by misconceptions. It’s had many lives over the years, from being a segregated area during apartheid to becoming the mix of nationalities and cultures it is today. Over time, it has developed a reputation for crime and violence. For Gerard Bester, it’s home. “There are many negative stories about Hillbrow,” he says. Bester uses theatre as a safe space for children to overcome issues they face, such as xenophobia and drug abuse. On stage, they take back the narratives surrounding their town.

“Like all of us, our young participants have experienced the complexities of our country,” Bester says. As the creative director of the Hillbrow Theatre Project, he has formed a retreat for children. The initiative runs after-school programmes where kids can use performance to navigate their society and explore who they are. Drama encourages empathy as children step into different roles and learn to understand the lives of others. In times of division, the stage is place of tolerance and acceptance. “Theatre can turn the other into us,” Bester says.

Forming a part of the Outreach Foundation, the project proves the importance of the arts. “Children transform, become confident, innovative in the choices that they make,” Bester says. The theatre is not just a place of entertainment, but a space for community. The lessons the children learn on stage are carried back home, spreading a message of pride. “I really believe that the theatre can revive and allow children to reimagine their neighbourhood,” Bester says. He believes this place is at the heart of Johannesburg, and the youth of his hometown show that. In their colourful costumes, they come alive on stage, embodying the spirit of South Africa. Here, in the middle of Hillbrow, they have found refuge.