Tag Archive: apartheid

  1. What Cannot Be Described

    Leave a Comment

    “We find the words for what cannot be described,” says Duma Kumalo in the Yale Cabaret’s newest show, “He Left Quietly,” directed by Leora Morris DRA ’16. The words are “shit” and “blood.” The words are “noose” and “coffin.” And all of these are punchy, sure, but inadequate. Genocide is senseless and impenetrable. Our causal chains and linguistic nets will never fully capture slaughter. Who can explain why thousands were killed, abused and tortured? Playwright Yaël Farber doesn’t ignore the gap between word and reality. She studies it closely. “How to arrange the unarrangeable, order what is shattered?” her character asks, palms up, as if in surrender.

    Of course, Farber first establishes a semblance of order, a simple, skeletal narrative she later deconstructs. She tells the true, harrowing tale of Duma Joshua Kumalo, a black South African accused of murder following the 1984 riots in Sharpeville. Though he is innocent, not even a witness to the mayor’s death, Kumalo is condemned under the law of common purpose. (Because he rioted alongside the murderer, he is equally responsible.) He spends the next four years in prison, awaiting the gallows. The play unfolds and unwinds in a chronological limbo, swaying between the 80s and early 2000s, when Farber and Kumalo first meet. The older Kumalo, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II DRA ’15, sits downstage with a suitcase at his side, while his younger self, played by Ato Blankson-Wood DRA ’15, acts out the unsettling memories — nights spent talking to himself or sobbing hysterically. Hovering nearby, Farber’s character, played by Maura Hooper, gives the play its momentum. She prods Kumalo when the story slows and occasionally offers the audience inspirational takeaways.

    But Kumalo avoids generalities — instead, he gives us anecdotes so vivid they’re almost nauseating. In those moments, moments of claustrophobic intimacy, the play feels not only tragic but true. Kumalo admits that he extracted his own teeth. He pulls back his cheek to expose the gaps and says, “A trip to the dentist meant if I looked out the car window, I could see the sky.” Farber recoils and gasps. The audience recoils and gasps. Still, he is unashamed. He goes on to explain how prisoners communicate — they dry out their toilet bowls and whisper into the pipes. The plumbing, he says, is full of “secrets and shit.”

    When the script sinks to platitude, however, “He Left Quietly” becomes just another preachy war story. Breaking the fourth wall, Farber turns to the audience and pontificates, questioning the very nature of liability. Under the law of common purpose, who is to blame for the Apartheid? Who is to blame for all the bloodshed? Farber’s musings sound both simplistic and self-important — these are questions better left unsaid. And the final scene, which has cast and audience members sorting a pile of dead men’s shoes with reverence, feels like a gimmick. A successful war story is a detailed one, not a numbered list or a metaphor or an ethical debate.

    Yet the three actors bring the requisite complexity and depth to an imperfect script. Hooper can look apalled, listening to Kumalo’s story, and suddenly vicious, when she doubles as a prison guard. And with his sonorous voice and leisurely delivery, Abdul-Mateen is the perfect narrator and focal point. He makes deliberate eye contact with the audience and delivers choice phrases with a wry smile. Recalling his last meal, a boneless chicken, he pauses. “I ate that fucking chicken,” he adds. And Blankson-Wood is no puppet: In reenacting Kumalo’s past, he has energy and grace. He screams and tears at the metal gate upstage with astonishing ferocity, the brute, theatrical force that jolts a sleepy audience awake.

    “He Left Quietly” is savage, so honest and bloody you’ll sometimes want to turn away and examine your fingernails instead. Even the spare set and shaky projections on the back wall are painful. But, as the lights first go up, Kumalo asks: “If the truth falls on empty chairs, does it make a sound?” At the Cabaret this weekend, the chairs will not be empty, and the truth will not fall silent.

  2. An 'Island' Near and Far

    Leave a Comment

    Sometimes closeness is the best reminder of distance. At the beginning of Yale Cabaret’s “The Island,” Athol Fugard’s Tony Award-winning 1973 apartheid-era drama, the political prisoner Winston (Winston Duke DRA ’13) douses himself with a bucket of water, and then lies heaving on the wooden stage. He is near enough that the rivulets trickling down his forehead seem tidal in proportion, and yet the loudness of his keening prevents us from forgetting that his character is beyond touching, beyond our help.

    The production is a study in proximity. “The Island” takes place on Robben Island, a political prison in South Africa for violators of apartheid law. The action, confined to a small wooden stage around which the audience sits, is at once tangible — if you extend your arm, you might brush the actors’ skin — and tantalizingly beyond reach.

    John (Paul Pryce DRA ’13) is attempting to convince a less-than-enthusiastic Winston, his cellmate, to play Antigone in a two-man rendition of the play for the other inmates. Although their preparations bring them closer, news that John’s island sentence has been reduced from 10 years to three months threatens to wrench them apart. Despite the characters’ physical nearness to each other, they are suddenly a world removed, separated not only by inches but the leagues between freedom and confinement.

    There are only two characters in “The Island,” but the actors’ eyes are practically a third and fourth. To stare into Mr. Pryce’s eyes, ravished by hope from the news of his sentence reduction, is to be completely captivated.

    The intellectual John, portrayed with earnest fervor by Mr. Pryce, insists that the reluctant Winston grasp “Antigone”’s significance and relevance to their plight. Just as Antigone is imprisoned for acting in accordance with her honor, so, too, are the island prisoners held captive for their beliefs — we learn later that Winston is jailed for burning his passbook before a police officer.

    But Winston is not so easily convinced. In the masterful hands of Mr. Duke, he is someone who has lost his ideals in the plodding reality of the island. “I know why I am here, and it is history, not legends. … This is child’s play,” he says derisively of “Antigone.” Mr. Duke’s Winston is both a source of comic relief and a cold reminder that, in the abyss of his confinement, his bumbling humor is all he has left.

    At the conclusion of the play, their friendship on the mend, they stage “Antigone,” with John as King Creon and the once-reluctant Winston playing the eponymous heroine. Wearing a braided straw wig for hair, crudely crafted necklace and long skirt, the statuesque Mr. Duke nevertheless projects a palpable masculinity.

    In one of the play’s most compelling scenes, John lifts a copper cup from the stage floor, brings it tenderly to his ear, and speaks into it as though it were a telephone. He recounts the details of his days at the prison, growing somber when he asks to pass on news to his wife. Finally, he puts down the cup, twirling it helplessly between his fingers, but continues to speak into the ether: “Tell her … it’s getting cold, and the worst is yet to come.” Given the desperate truth of his acting, that he is only pretending comes as a surprise.

    Winston will spend the rest of his life on the island, but his gaze contains a defiant universe. That is what this staging of “The Island” does so well — it cramps its miniscule stage with the boundless feeling of its actors. Foreign is their predicament, but familiar is the human condition.

    “The Island” runs through  Jan. 26 at the Yale Cabaret.