Shakespeare uplifts South Africa’s destitute

May 31, 2023
2 mins read
Johannesburg Awakening Minds. Image: Heather Djunga

Learning the lines from a Shakespeare play might seem difficult, tedious even, but ask a group of aspiring actors and actresses from South Africa, who go under the auspices of Johannesburg Awakening Minds (JAM), and they will tell you that Shakespeare has transformed their lives.

JAM is no ordinary group of performing artists. Other than the love for Shakespeare, the members all have one thing in common – a difficult past and challenging circumstances. Many of them live on South Africa’s streets, sleeping under the stars, under desperate conditions. Some have a history of abuse, many are still living with addictions and fighting to stay strong under the increasingly tough conditions in the country.

The members were ‘adopted’ by Dorothy Gould and her team eleven years ago, when Dorothy became aware of the plight of the homeless and destitute in the Johannesburg area and decided to do something about it. JAM was started with the vision of teaching Shakespeare to homeless, underprivileged residents— to empower them for the future and provide a means to help them to heal. Dorothy and her team meet with the Johannesburg residents regularly to feed them, provide for them, and teach them acting… specifically, using Shakespeare plays.

Image: Heather Djunga
South African theater troupe Johannesburg Awakening Minds (JAM). Image: Heather Djunga

As an accomplished actress and performing artist, Dorothy explained that acting had been the way she had healed as a child. She said she realized at a young age that when she stepped into the shoes of a character in a play, she was given a safe space to express her deepest feelings. As she grew older, she grew in her repertoire as an actress, going on to take on international stages as an award-winning performer.

Starting JAM has been her way of paying forward what she has learned to others.“Through learning Shakespeare, the members of JAM are given a safe refuge to explore untapped emotions,” she said. “Many have horrific stories of how they came to be homeless, or addicts, for example. Acting gives them a vehicle for expression, and they are taught a skill to empower them for life.”

She said many of the members of JAM have been training in Shakespeare since JAM’s inception, for almost 11 years, meaning they are now able to teach others and pass on the skills they have been taught— in turn ‘paying it forward’, just as she has.

One of her students, Michael Mazibuko, recently traveled overseas to perform a one-man show; and Dorothy explained this was just one of the success stories. Another, Lwazi Mayeki, recently traveled with Dorothy and her team to the Western Cape in South Africa where 40 teenagers were taught to act in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with director Mark Graham Wilson. Lwazi helped to teach the teenagers. They began not being able to whisper a word, and emerged confident on stage, with something important in them restored— their voice!

Dorothy said that she has plans to join a team in the western Cape later this year, this time to teach 60 teenagers Romeo and Juliet! 

So why Shakespeare?

“Shakespearean plays carry the full gamut of emotions,” explained Dorothy. “The characters show anger, love, fear, sadness, and loneliness.”

The team from JAM has become well-known in the area and is supported through various organizations with regular meals, and donations. They travel to various organizations, such as schools and retirement homes, where they perform pieces from Shakespeare.

“We are getting known and I am just thrilled about it – as are we all,” said Dorothy.

Dorothy is currently filming a six-part Netflix series and is excited about the future. She said when she isn’t filming for the series, she is with her JAM family. She said their success was the product of community involvement and the courage that each member has found to step into the very real and tried shoes of Shakespearean characters. Their real and tragic stories are hinted at through the raw emotions they so convincingly portray through the procession of colorful characters.


Heather Djunga

Heather Djunga is an award-winning writer and editor from South Africa, who has also authored a children's series.

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