Born in the RSA | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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BORN IN THE RSA

Northlight Theatre

Those who enjoy full political rights at present are not prepared to bow out apologetically from the stage of history.--President F.W. de Klerk, refusing to abolish laws that reserve just 13 percent of South Africa's land for the black majority and that classify all citizens by race

Race hate never bows out apologetically from the stage of history. Like slavery in the American south, apartheid's institutionalized inequality will be shoved off screaming and kicking, its defenders startled if not shamed when they finally reach the 19th and 20th centuries.

When freedom comes, Johannesburg's Market Theatre, a troupe launched by Barney Simon in 1973, can be proud. South Africa's only integrated company, the Market Theatre has pounded a lot of nails into the coffin of "apart-hate"--nails called Asinamali!, Sophiatown, A Lesson from Aloes, Woza Albert!, and Born in the RSA. Even the staid London Times calls their work "tantamount to a revolutionary political manifesto in South Africa." Market Theatre is Mandela dramatized.

Asinamali! and Sophiatown played here--triumphantly--in 1986 and 1988 as part of the International Theatre Festival. Born in the RSA, a powerful Northlight Theatre offering produced in association with the 1990 festival, pounds in more nails. Far from distorting truth into propaganda, its political agenda adds urgency to its heartfelt and universal witnessing.

Like earlier Market Theatre shows, Born in the RSA was improvised from life, then written down by Simon and his actors. It's a combustible group effort, mixing moving protest anthems, folk dance, and film clips with the documentarylike testimony of embattled individuals. As the actors testify, giant slides of them appear on the wall behind them. The crosscutting narratives--which, though highly representative, are never case histories--connect South Africa's dangerous extremes: freedom fighters whose humanity makes them traitors, a security apparatus that thrives by creating insecurity through ceaseless attempts to divide and conquer.

The action takes place in Johannesburg in 1986, after the return of the state of emergency. Simon's ensemble is strong and perfectly melded--four whites and three blacks, three South Africans and four Americans.

A radical dynamo, Thenjiwe Bona (Jacqueline Williams) is a spellbinding ANC speaker whose eloquence is often taken for magic. It has also made her a constant prisoner. Born in the RSA painfully details South Africa's police-state tactics--guilt by association, sudden arrest, slow interrogation, and forced confessions through torture. No two arrests are ever the same. "One minute I was dreaming of Kentucky chicken and chips," says Thenjiwe. "The next--I was on my way to police headquarters, with a cop on either side. Well, that's life in the RSA. And you know, I was wearing my nice clothes, and they said, 'Ja, and where did you steal those clothes from?'"

Thenjiwe's schoolteacher sister Sindiswa Ngube (Ora Jones) rages at the lies the police tell. In order to justify the atrocities they plan, for example, they falsely accuse children of stoning buses. Zacharia Melani (Seth Sibanda) is a quiet musician, disgusted at having to swallow a lifetime of anger. We only glimpse his rage. After seeing a battered black boy released from jail, Melani imagines doing terrible things with a baseball bat to some little white girls blissfully playing in a school yard. As he says, each has a nanny who can never know if she'll see her children alive or dead at the end of a day that she spent toiling for her enemy's kids. In South Africa innocence isn't impossible, it's just unforgivable.

Among the minority (white) characters, activist lawyer Mia Steinman (Erica Rogers) joined the antiapartheid struggle out of a "desperate need to change the world we live in." Knowing how history will judge the brutal civil war, she sees the children of Soweto as liberators sent to free the "republic" from its lies.

But graduate student Glen Donahue (Arnold Vosloo) sees the same children and says, "They stink of victory." Smugly indifferent to the pain he causes, this highly paid police spy started by betraying his leftist professor. Now he wrecks the lives of everyone he knows, including Susan Lang (Sandy Dirkx), an art teacher who loved the empty hunk. Nicky Donahue, Glen's estranged wife, typifies the white South Africans caught in the cross fire. Helpless and appalled, she describes a world in which a meter maid calmly tickets her car amid the chaos of a bombing.

Born in the RSA moves us most when the performances speak for more than the characters: Zacharia's desperate efforts to hide incriminating evidence; Thenjiwe's joyous dream of escaping prison, from which she awakens just as she is about to pass through the gate; Glen spitting out his fear of the "sick certainty" that fuels his enemies in the ANC; Susan stealing pens from her warders as revenge; Nicky recalling the first time she shared a joint with a black man; the terrible moment in Susan's trial when she realizes that her smooth and sensitive lover is the cop who put her in jail.

Born in the RSA ends in an impromptu victory celebration inside a prison where Thenjiwe is reunited with old comrades. Until this point the slides that depict the characters have been black and white. Now behind the ecstatic, silhouetted dancers appears a color photo of a smiling Nelson Mandela. Suddenly their victory dance seems prophetic.

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