This week PlayCo began performances of debbie tucker green’s generations, inviting our audience into a theatrical version of a South African township in downtown New York. The environment for our production is inspired by traditional shebeens, informal gathering places where South Africans kick back at the end of the day to share a beer, conversation and a meal with neighbors. Shebeen is originally an Irish word referring to unlicensed or illegal drinking establishments. The first South African shebeens were just that.
South Africa’s 1927 Liquor Act prohibited Backs and Indians from selling alcohol and from entering licensed premises. In response shebeens began springing up in townships often in converted areas of the owners home or in re-purposed sheds. Here they served homemade alcohol, simple meals and hosted musicians. It was not uncommon for women to brew alcohol for sale as a way to supplement the family income and so many of the first shebeen proprietors were women, sometimes referred to as “shebeen queens”. Owners along with their customers were often arrested and they were forced to hide their illegal liquor.
Modern day shebeens retain the informal, ad hoc feel of the original illegal establishments. Furniture is usually second-hand and mistached; a white sheet is often hung on a clothes line to show sporting events; the typical fare is still a basic stew accompanied with a cornmeal dish called pap. As shebeens have increased in popularity they have added music and dancing.
For most a visit to South Africa isn’t complete without a visit to one of these roadside taverns.