Apartheid-era classic play still rouses, but…

Apartheid-era classic play still rouses, but…

SHOW: Born In The RSA
DIRECTOR: Thoko Ntshinga
CAST: Zanele Radu, Joanna Evans, Dobs Madotyeni, Roeline Daneel, Faniswa Yisa, Emily Child and Francis Chouler
VENUE: The Baxter Studio until Saturday, August 8

Do apartheid era plays – especially ones that glorified the liberation struggle – still have a resonance in a corruption scarred, service delivery deprived and increasingly demoralised (post-)rainbow nation? It’s a tough question to answer as a reviewer, but the close-to-capacity audience I saw Thoko Ntshinga’s spirited production of theatre legend Barney Simon’s ‘Born In The RSA’ with – some of whom leapt to their feet and were visibly emotionally affected by what they had seen – seemed to signal these works definitely have a place in the here in now in Cape Town.

Marianne Thamm, in her illuminating review of the play on The Daily Maverick website, makes a pretty compelling argument that a production like this now serves as a mere “one-dimensional cultural and educational curiosity”. (Read her full review here) I wouldn’t go quite so far, but there is no denying that there is quite a bit about ‘Born In The RSA’ that feels slightly archaic.

As the programme points out, the theatrical space was one where the censoring tentacles of the apartheid regime had not quite reached, so theatre-makers like Simon used this relative freedom to craft productions that not only showcased how the “other half” of the population was living, but that was also supposed to rouse outrage in theatregoers. As such, ‘Born In The RSA’ wears its intentions on its sleeves, which is something that the most vibrantly enduring plays – the ones that remain relevant decades and centuries beyond their specific cultural timeframes – usually don’t do.

Usually the classic texts have a hardened core of mystery; an almost stubborn reluctance to being easily understood. That’s why they have survived constant evaluations and re-evaluations by scholars over the centuries. ‘Born In The RSA’ simply does not possess that multi-layered-ness. Its purpose during the time it was conceived was far more immediate – to facilitate societal change.

I agree with Thamm that it is the white characters that are the most fully formed. I would go as far as to say the play is at its best when we get insights into the mundane details of these characters’ lives, whether they be normal people who are mostly unaware of the crimes being committed in their names; or ones who get sucked into being co-conspirators of the regime – it at least serves as snapshots of a particular reality not too long ago. The black characters most often exhibit such simplistic traits as pride, or courage, or anger, or defiance in the face of adversity and persecution. It would have made a huge difference to the scope of the play if we were afforded more access to their interior lives and the world they inhabited.

The young actors that Ntshinga – who starred in the original production in 1985 – has assembled each give it their all and imbue the material with a passionate, rousing charge. My favourite is perhaps Joanna Evans, who gets to show immense range in the course of the play. As someone who we’ve become accustomed to operating behind the scenes in the theatrical scene, her performance is eye opening, to say the least. I hope we get to see her land more starring roles in the future. She certainly grabs this one with both hands.
Despite its shortcomings, ‘Born In The RSA’ at least serves as a timely reminder that no matter how dark – no pun intended – things can sometimes get in current era SA, things were truly, unimaginably bleak 30 years ago, with practically no end in sight for those who were suffering the injustices that were meted out against them. What Simon and his co-conspirators achieved back then was immense. It’s just a pity they didn’t leave more for posterity to engage with.

* Book at computicket.