Deon de Jongh almost missed the moment that changed his life.
De Jongh, the founder of the South African Culture in New York group, said when he was invited to go to a rehearsal of “Salt Chocolate” earlier this year, he didn’t know if he wanted to go. The play was about the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but he felt somehow indifferent. On a whim, he decided to go — it couldn’t hurt, right?
“It hit home, hit me square between the eyes,” de Jongh said. “I broke down and cried. I was a totally new person.”
De Jongh, who ended up as the show’s proudest advocate, said he had never cried over the events that had taken place in his home country. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a project of Nelson Mandela’s government, calling for victims and perpetrators of Apartheid-era violence to come out and tell their stories. Perpetrators, both black and white, admitted point-blank to their crimes and asked for amnesty and forgiveness. But while the process was necessary closure for many South Africans, de Jongh felt that by putting faces on the old enemy, the TRC made him even angrier.
He left it all behind when he came to the United States over three years ago, but the pain festered below the surface.
“I realized I had been running away,” de Jongh said. “I remember simply turning off the broadcast when they showed the TRC hearings, and I left South Africa with a lot of animosity towards white South Africans.”
De Jongh said he felt the shock of salt on old wounds when he saw “Salt Chocolate” for the first time, because it dramatized an event that happened ten minutes away from his hometown of Retreat, Cape Town, South Africa. On March 3, 1986, seven young men in their early twenties were framed as terrorists and executed by apartheid police.
In “Salt Chocolate,” transcriptions from the TRC hearings were cut and pasted to create the script, and seven actors deliver their lines amidst South African and African American spirituals. Using elements of African and modern dance, the performers writhe in the nonverbal emotion of their characters.
“Salt Chocolate” will be performed in at Trinity College in Hartford this Friday after receiving critical acclaim for its performance in New York. The theatrical dance piece hopes to reach out to a wide variety of viewers.
“Dance gives freedom of interpretation to the audience because it isn’t tied precisely to a text,” said Amelia Reid ’06 of Yale Dancers. “A dance show, whether it be Swan Lake or a modern piece, is always meant to tell a story that is better expressed through the body.”
For de Jongh, the bare-bones style of “Salt Chocolate” captured the essence of his experience. The spare stage, the distillation of dialogue, and the abstract movements of the performers’ bodies brought him back home, where he could still feel and still hurt.
“I could relate to every moment,” he said. “Their motions were just so African, and so true to what the TRC is about,” he said.
His connection is surprising, considering the fact that the show is a case study in experimental theater. The stories are told as non-linear fragments, and the choreography arose entirely out of improvisation. Director Gabrielle Lansner led the actors in a collective creative process that involved exploring character through physical embodiment
So how did Lansner, a white American woman, come up with a vision that moved de Jongh to tears he could not shed even after almost two decades?
As it turns out, Lansner said she has never been to South Africa. But the project came together for her when she was flipping through a book called “Truth and Lies: Stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” by South African photographer Jillian Edelstein, which documented the hearings. “Here were these strong, bold women who had lost their children,” Lansner said. “It hit me on a human level. How does one walk around in the world with all that pain?”
Lansner decided to zero in on forgiveness, which struck her as particularly difficult in the case of the TRC hearings.
“These were actual perpetrators who stepped out and met with the mothers of those they had killed, asking forgiveness,” she said. “I wanted to ask the question, what happens when you don’t forgive? I want people to connect on a political, but also very personal level.”
In the response sessions after the opening performances of “Salt Chocolate” in New York, Lansner found that the theme of racial conflict resonated with the African-American audience. Coping with the trauma of violence within a community and the sorrow of parents who lost children were themes that struck all viewers across the board.
As for de Longh, he believes that the general American audience could stand to know a little more about the atrocities of apartheid. The show is truly an exercise in compassion and education.
“People are like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this happened!'” he said. “And they may not have the same depth of feeling that I have, having been through it. But the play is a window into what happened.”
To de Longh, it’s clear what has happened. His wounds have been liberally treated with “Salt Chocolate,” and it healed, and it hurt like hell. But somewhere along the line, you realize that you’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet. You’ve got to connect intimately with those you thought you could only hate. You have to forgive.