Celebrating Dawn Lindberg, a South African icon

Humour, a dash of controversy and real daring always characterised the work of the director, performer and writer who lit up stages across the country with theatrical excellence.

A theatre opening event in Johannesburg never felt complete before the arrival of Des and Dawn Lindberg. When they entered the auditorium to take their places in a production’s audience, it felt as though a precious parental blessing had been conferred on the work, enabling the lights to go down and the magic to start. 

The Lindbergs, a musical duo from the early 1960s, carried the cut and thrust of folk songs through the horrors of apartheid. Directing, choreographing, performing and curating, they never lost their will to robustly support the arts industry. Armed with a magic dragon named “Puff” and a seagull named “Nelson” in their lyrics, they managed to subversively filter confrontational anti-apartheid values into happy, catchy popular culture, in ways that few other musical practitioners could at the time. Dawn Lindberg died in Plettenberg Bay on 8 December 2020 from Covid-19. She was 75.

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Born Dawn Silver on 19 April 1945, Lindberg studied fine arts at the University of the Witwatersrand in the early 1960s, going on to learn the ropes of etching in Italy. She also developed her passion for performance, and it was while she was at Wits that she met the love of her life, Des, whom she described in an interview as a “gentle Viking with a long fringe”. 

They found themselves performing opposite one another in The Vagabond King, an operetta, for the Wits Choral Society. He was cast as a knight in shining armour, she, a beautiful lady of the court. They got together – married in 1965 – and redefined the notion of the minstrel folk singer, becoming an institution with their acoustic guitar, their caravan and their infectious energy, which featured in establishments such as the Troubadour coffee bar on Noord Street, Braamfontein, as well as tours all over the country and further afield. 

Slipping Nelson into the litany

Over more than 50 years, the Lindbergs’ work embedded itself into popular South African culture in a way that enabled the most ordinary un-art-savvy folk to take ownership of it and sing along. From the Peter, Paul and Mary song, Puff the Magic Dragon and the sad portrayal of the unicorn at the time of Noah’s flood to Big Rock Candy Mountain and The Seagull’s Name was Nelson, the songs – some reworked into South African idioms from their American counterparts and others fresh from Des and Dawn’s pen – appealed to everyone, blending hippie values with wholesome ones.

Indeed the seagull song offered a particularly fine jibe at the cultural unawareness of the apartheid powers that were. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated in Robben Island and mention of his name was forbidden in everyday society. This song, which was about a small boy saving an oil-logged seagull named Nelson, became a powerful gesture of gentle but intentional protest.

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They produced several immensely popular LPs, including Folk on Trek, which blended Afrikaans with self-deprecating South Africanisms that won their audience’s love and laughter. 

But their work was not all about making pretty songs. In 1973, the Lindbergs staged Godspell, the off-Broadway musical by Stephen Schwartz, which is controversially based on the Gospel of St Matthew. Even more controversially, they cast several Black performers into the work, including Cocky “Two-Bull” Tlhotlhalemaje, Harriet Matiwane and Ali Lerefolo. The work was staged for five months in Maseru, Lesotho. Reeling with this success, Des and Dawn were determined to bring it to South Africa and booked it for a season at the Wits Great Hall, to open in March 1974. It was banned on religious grounds by the Publications Control Board before opening night. 

After an urgent appeal to the Supreme Court, it was allowed to be performed for one night, during which time it was interrupted by police, who claimed there was a bomb in the theatre. Dawn refused to give in. The show went on despite the theatre being ransacked by apartheid cops – this was just a taste of the kind of obstacles the apartheid police put in the way of the work. The Lindbergs’ tenacity and courage through this time of apartheid double-speak won the work a South African season of two years.

Sex, taboos and having a good time learning

Another work that skirted on the edges of acceptability was the raunchy stage musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, directed by Dawn and featuring Annabel Linder, Victor Melleney and Judy Page. This Carol Hall musical, which was at the time packing in audiences on Broadway, earned an age restriction from local censors and did not enjoy a long season, in spite of rave reviews.

Issues that were taboo in South African society because of references to sexuality were of great interest to Lindberg. In the 1980s she co-wrote How Did I Begin?, a book and record project introducing children to the facts of life. In 2003, she earned the rights to Eve Ensler’s self-affirming work The Vagina Monologues. Performing as well as directing, she cast the production with Rachel Tambo, Tselane Tambo, Karin van der Laag and Nobuntu Mphalaza. 

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“Yes,” she said at the time, “it has been highly controversial. The word ‘vagina’ is used 136 times and there are 16 orgasms. But it is uplifting and very moving. We guarantee anyone who sees it will never think of themselves, other women, or their vaginas in the same way. All the men who have seen it have thanked us for demystifying this very mysterious part of a woman.”

A star is born

In 2004, Lindberg founded the Naledi Theatre Awards, which replaced the Vita Arts Awards for Theatre, which had been disbanded. This body of peer-reviewed and rewarded theatre aimed to give credence to anything that met specific professional criteria. It was a very important project for her, which aimed to honour and celebrate not only the performers, but also those professionals behind the scenes – the lighting designers and choreographers, the costume makers and set builders – who give productions their magic. A couple of days before she died, Dawn created a YouTube video from her isolated context with a message to the government, declaring, “We [in the arts] are still here; excellence must be recognised and rewarded.”

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In 2015, Des and Dawn Lindberg, in their individual capacities, were acknowledged with the Living Legends Award by South Africa’s Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa. The loss of Dawn is devastating to South African theatre. The work she and Des achieved was central to the core of this difficult, often-maligned and misunderstood industry.

Des and Dawn moved to Plettenberg Bay towards the end of 2019, where they planned to retire and write their autobiography. Unforgettable and irreplaceable, Dawn leaves Des, their sons, Joshua and Adam, daughter-in-law, Zuraidah, and grandchildren, Zaria and Shia, as well as their nephew, Gerard Bester and his family, and her brother, John Silver – not to overlook literally thousands of people whose lives they touched in so many decades of being in theatre.

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