‘Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise’: Apartheid’s Private Pain Becomes Group Art


‘Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise’: Apartheid’s Private Pain Becomes Group Art

Tormenting memories dissolve into soaring music, and pain is salved by a collective embrace in “Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise,” a heartfelt, powerfully performed theater piece that opened last night at the Culture Project. Using just the basic resources of the stage — words and music, light and darkness, stillness and movement — the five actors and authors of “Amajuba” sift through the past, searching to transcend its wounds by taming the ghosts of history.

Theater as therapy? It’s a durable if often tedious genre, but the stories told here are of more than purely personal interest. The cast of “Amajuba” grew up in South African townships during the apartheid years. The social and political legacies of that repellent system have been the subject of much wide-focus journalism in the years since it was abolished. “Amajuba” reminds us that the continuing struggle and suffering of individuals underlie those assessments. The poisons bred by injustice do not disappear with a change of policy, and the sweep of what we come to call progress does not erase the scars of history’s victims.

“Amajuba” is composed as a succession of personal recollections woven together with a capella performances of spirituals from the apartheid years. Each of the performers takes a turn at center stage, recalling the traumatic events of his or her youth. The monologues are illustrated by dramatic or comic vignettes performed by the whole cast. There is a subtle sense of individual anguish ebbing away as it is transformed into collective art. These actors all but glow with a sense of mission, as if telling their stories has given them new purpose and power.

Bongeka Mpongwana’s disarmingly bright smile adds poignance to her history of deprivation. She and her older sister were abandoned by her parents and forced to beg for food in their village at a time when none of their neighbors had much to spare. A child’s need for emotional succor is piteously illustrated by her searing affection for an alcoholic grandfather. He was useless as a provider and a caregiver, but she loved him desperately anyway.

Roelf Matlala’s mixed blood was his burden. His persecution at the hands of other children is familiar schoolyard cruelty, but the phantasmagoric illustration of the physical abuse meted out by the school principal is the stuff of lasting nightmares, amusing though Ms. Mpongwana is as a punishing gorgon with the incongruously comic name of Popo.

“In all the years Popo beat me,” Mr. Matlala recalls with wonder and rue, “she never knew my name.”

The social dislocations caused by apartheid wreak slow havoc on the family of Phillip Tindisa, whose warm comic style and mischievous eyes flavor his reminiscences. The family was forced to relocate when the government arbitrarily decided to segregate its black citizens by tribe. Phillip’s father never made the emotional adjustment; he gradually withdrew from the new homestead, both emotionally and physically, eventually removing all his possessions piece by piece, day by day, in a plastic bag.

The most disturbing story of survival is told by Jabulile Tshabalala, who grew up — yet again in a broken home — in one of the most violent sections of the infamous Soweto township, where the absence of authority meant the tyranny of brutal gangsters. Violence also ripped a hole in the life of Tshallo Chokwe, whose dreams of escape from poverty as a soccer star are supplanted by political activism during his teenage years.

If the neglect of its black citizens by the South African government has been amply if obliquely illustrated by the other stories in “Amajuba,” Mr. Chokwe’s tale of teenage boys being hanged after a riot brings us up against the more violent realities of the state’s brutality.

“Amajuba” has flaws. With five stories of suffering and endurance to be related in about 90 minutes, it is not surprising that the authors sometimes rely on glib summations or emotional shorthand to give their stories a formal polish. “We saw things in those years that kids shouldn’t see,” “It is only in going back that I can move forward,” “We are the lost generation of our country” : honestly felt though these sentiments are, they skirt banality. And while the creator, director and co-author, Yael Farber, has done a fine job of framing these recollections in theatrical terms that provide both variety and unity, the show’s ending, a collective ritual in which the actors begrime themselves with the dust of history and then wash it off, feels overextended and strained.

But the fierce engagement of the performers, vibrating with attentiveness even when they fade into the shadows during a monologue, always keeps us hooked. And, thankfully, the overwhelming sadness of these testimonies is softened by mild doses of humor — the wry acknowledgment that children can endure even the most unendurable suffering — and by the soothing sounds of the songs that are woven through all the stories.

As the performers’ voices rise in songs expressing faith and hope for salvation, you perceive with unusual clarity the close relationship between suffering and spirituality, the way humanity’s consoling graces — art included — arise from our sensitivity to pain, at the hands of an indifferent universe or human baseness.

Like Doves We Rise

Created and directed by Yael Farber; written in collaboration with the cast members, based on their experiences; lighting by Tim Boyd; lighting director, Garin Marschall; production manager, Catherine Bloch; production coordinator, Leigh Colombick; produced by David Friedman and Lauren Saffa. Presented by the Farber Foundry, Thomas O. Kriegsmann, executive producer, and the Culture Project, Allan Buchman, artistic director. At the Culture Project, 45 Bleecker Street, at Lafayette Street, East Village; (212) 307-4100. Through Aug. 27. Running time: 90 minutes.

WITH: Tshallo Chokwe, Roelf Matlala, Bongeka Mpongwana, Phillip Tindisa and Jabulile Tshabalala.



This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 26th, 2006 at 6:35 PM and filed under Uncategorized. Follow comments here with the RSS 2.0 feed. Skip to the end and leave a response. Trackbacks are closed.

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