THE FALL. Directed by Ameera Conrad and Thando Mangcu, with Ameera Conrad, Oarabile Ditsele, Tankiso Mamabolo, Thando Mangcu, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Sihle Mnqwazana and Cleo Raatus. Devised by the cast, facilitated by Clare Stopford. At the Baxter Theatre until October 29
TRACEY SAUNDERS reviews
IT seems a slight obscenity to be sitting in the calm sanctuary of a darkened theatre when metres away the sound of stun grenades resonate. When the drama on stage is an echo of the disruptions happening on the campus next door though, the experience in the theatre presents an opportunity for learning and reflection. For the Class of 2015 who take to the stage each night and the audiences who join them this is more than just a play and the emotion in the theatre is as thick as the tear gas which has hung over the campus in recent days. In the documentary theatre style used by Barney Simon in the creation of Black Dog/Inj’emnyamaand Cincinnati, two plays that these UCT drama graduates are intimately familiar, The Fall presents an insight into the #RhodesMustFall movement and a linear account of events that led to the removal of the statute of Cecil John Rhodes from the UCT campus in 2015.
The cast are drawn from the graduating drama class of 2015 many of whom were integrally involved in the movement. Asked after the opening night performance how much of the events depicted were based on personal experience they replied, “60:40.” It is this ratio of personal and lived experience to dramatic representation that lends this production the depth of authenticity which makes it such a moving piece of theatre. The energy never flags for a minute with the sense of urgency made palpable - the narrative interspersed with songs and chants which serve the dual role of emphasising the student’s sense of purpose and maintaining their spirits.
To some the ongoing crisis on the campuses of tertiary institution around the country are only experienced through media headlines, clichéd newspaper headlines or sound bites on radio and television. Few instances of the personal lives behind the protest are to be found. The Fall changes this and presents the very human reality behind the hash tag demands of students. It avoids the pitfall of commodifying black pain and presenting it for mere entertainment value. It has steered clear from proselyting and powerful performances ensure that it doesn’t lapse in to a pedantic litany of propaganda. Instead we are introduced to young people who are passionate about being educated, whose misfortune it is to have been born on the wrong side of privilege, but the right side of history. The “born frees” may be alive in a era where the gates of learning have been unlocked but they still require a very expensive key to gain access to the ivory tower.
The charge is led by Mamabolo, a powerhouse on stage with a formidable voice and stage presence. She is a pivot on which much of the energy of the piece turns. She rouses and cajoles, argues and encourages and fills in much of the contextual detail. Drawing on her personal experience in the movement she chairs a meeting in one of the closing scenes of the play. At the meeting medical students are presenting their case to write their final exams.
The repetition of the exact same argument in the newspaper the next day brings the immediacy of the play and the enormity of the stakes to home. After the meeting adjourns she laments that “ no 22 year old should have to do this” and she’s right. Her heartfelt plea brims with emotion and as with many of the situations presented the distinction between reality and staged fiction is impossible to discern. Mnisi stands head and shoulders above his fellow cast members as he prowls across the stage. Dressed in a bandanna redolent of the Black Panther members of the 60s he carries himself with an insouciance borne of the conviction of youth. He bristles with energy and his hyper masculinity is interrogated by the fiery Conrad as she addresses the chauvinism that has been present in the movement. This refusal to avoid some of the schisms that have been highlighted in otherwise progressive movements is one of the strengths of the play.
The patriarchal stance of some of the members, the negation of queer voices and the antagonism towards black feminists are all addressed. Conrad’s character also brings to fore the erasure of coloured identity and the insidious nature of racism which results in varying degrees of discrimination based on arbitrary race classifications. Raatus ensures the visibility of another marginalised community, that of the trans gender and non- binary individuals on campus. His performance is nuanced and yet deliberate, unapologetic and certain of the space that he occupies. Mnqwazana is as charming as he is captivating on stage. He brings a thread of humour in to the play and his comic timing ensures that the laughs are not cheap and at the expense of the weight of the text. Ditsele continues to up his performance game, following on his role in Woza Albert (alongside Mnisi) he is the aspirant cricket player and illustrative of much of the discourse around transformation in sport. Mangcu is cast as the outlier, the ex model c student who brings another voice to the table. The inclusion of this counter narrative in the dominant discourse is useful in understanding that there is not one singular voice on campus and illustrates the complexity of the situation
The staging is simple, three desks are barricades, empty plinths and platforms for fervent speeches. Pivotal moments from last year’s events are projected on to the stage, even larger than life. The momentous nature of this particular time made even more visible as the footage from the gathering outside parliament plays relentlessly. The cast’s clothing all contain shades or red, representative of the depth of passion and perhaps hinting at the blood that has been shed in this revolution. As always Curtis’s lighting adds another dimension to the stage and creates classrooms and outdoor amphitheatres as well as lighting the conceit of the cast’s inner monologues which serve to link each of the scenes presented.
The Fall epitomises the vital role that the arts can play in building a society and recording history in the making. In an essay discussing dissent in theatre Aleks Sierz, writer, theatre critic and editor of The Methuen Drama Book of 21st Century British Plays wrote, “Playwrights surely are not the unacknowledged legislators of the nation.
We should not expect them to be either politicians or social workers, but we should demand that they come up with powerful metaphors of our current discontent. If they can’t change the cultural skyline then who can? Isn’t that, after all, just their job? Times are changing. Society is shifting. Defiance is growing. Time to put shards of glass in the porridge of complacency. Surely, we have a world to win. Don’t we?” There is indeed a new world to be won in South Africa and these young actors are at the forefront of the battle. The revolution may not be televised, it is definitely being staged.