This term has had three distinct uses in South Africa during the late 20th century.
(1) In its conventional sense it was long used to refer to theatre which is popular with audiences, i.e. well supported at the box office. These were usually light and entertaining productions (comedies, farces, musicals, and so on), but could (and did) on occasion include more serious work (e.g. P.G. du Plessis’s Siener in die Suburbs was a very popular play in the 1970’s, breaking box office records for PACT).
(2) However in the late 1970s to mid 1980s there was a serious attempt by some of the writers and theorists of the cultural struggle to appropriate this term and to use it as a term for “theatre for the masses”, i.e. “people’s theatre”. They based based on the Latin root of the word, namely populus, meaning “the populace”, and argued that it must refer to the entire population, not just the privileged (white) masses. Though much debated and specifically used in this sense by some writers (e.g. Robert Kavanagh and Ian Steadman), the inherent contradiction (and a need for the original term by most commentators on theatre) eventually proved too much and by the 1990s this politicised sense of the term had all but disappeared from everyday use. (See also People's theatre.)
(3) In the 1990s the term became increasingly used anthropologically to also refer to what were considered to be the original indigenous forms of performance. Thus social, cultural and other oral and kinetic forms would be referred to as "popular theatre" or "popular performance". Particularly by researchers looking at African performance.
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