When I was cast as The Student in What Remains, I was very aware of how much I would grow as an actress, and how significant it was for my career (working with a stellar cast and award-winning director and writer is no small thing!). What I couldn’t have guessed was how the experience of performing it would leave me grappling with history and my place in it as a young person in South Africa today.
The Student is the observer, “the child who learns and unlearns”.
The first time I read the script I was intrigued by Nadia’s choice to make her (The Student) the first lens through which the audience sees the story. She opens the play, and through her actions, she closes it.
The figure of The Student is almost iconic in South African history; one that always seems to emerge when it’s time to tilt history’s repetitive narrative, our soil speaks with the blood of the young; from 1976 to 2015, it is the young person who becomes animated by struggle, who embodies it.
Today we, the youth, are at the centre of another struggle and I’m struck by the parallels between mine and the character’s experiences of South Africa today.
Like her, I am bearing witness to old bones, histories, to re-emerging wounds. Similarly, my character notes a disturbance, watches the ghost’s emergence without opinion, but as the ghost speak and violence is uncovered, she is called to action.
The histories we continue to uncover are visceral and deep and, as young people, we want to shift towards something new our collective futures depend on it.
The characters in the play are all grappling with disruption in their own ways, but I think what sets the student apart is that she chooses integration with a painful history by becoming the final disruption. She chooses to no longer sit on the sidelines and allow history to dictate its terms to her. Instead, she disrupts its violence. She disrupts with violence. She burns it.
It may not be the answer, but it’s her answer The steady realisation that we are only beginning to delve into the traumas of our past now, having to “play” that realisation onstage, has been challenging. In many ways, it is my truth and those realisations assault me/us in a very real way.
The paralleling between life and art is unnerving.
This includes the character having to measure the violence and her beginning to attempt to find a way through it.
For millennials, it doesn’t feel like there is a platform/space for us to mourn our country’s history. We are constantly told what it is that we should be grateful for, that “the struggle” was never ours to battle.
Through What Remains, I hope to carve out that space for us; to pick up the old bones and ask them to tell us their stories, to evoke the ghosts and watch them howl, then to soothe them with a promise; we won’t forget, we won’t stop learning, we are ready for what’s to come.
My character in the play has a line: “It is easy to remember a story that is not yours if it is yours”. I think that sums it up.
Ngaba is an actress, writer and activist. She performed in What Remains, written by Nadia Davids and directed by Jay Pather which ended this week.