STANDARD Bank Young Artist 2016 award winner for theatre, Jade Bowers, returned to the National Arts Festival this year with a world-shattering exploration of the personal histories of South Africans intersecting with their present realities with her production Black.
The characters of Zara Black, Her great grandmother Martha, her aunt Rose, her cousin Amy, her father Bart, her mother Lena, Bart’s once-friend James Ndlovu and ex-lover Marybeth Harrison, are all portrayed rhythmically and with grit by actress Ameera Patel.
Black begins with Zara – a “coloured” female, doing a fellowship at a university in New Jersey – receiving a letter notifying her that the South African government is about to release a list of all the names of people who were traitors to the anti-apartheid movement, and furthermore that her father’s name will also be published, listing him as a traitor.
Zara goes on a desperate search, following breadcrumb trails, mapping her history to uncover the truth before her family name is tarnished.
She traces her history all the way to Kimberly, where her grandfather Isiah Black got a job at the Diamond Company, where it is alleged the family’s wealth spawned from, lasting well into Zara’s life, serving as a catalyst to the guilt feeding her search for the truth.
Guilt, identity, race, prejudices and archetypal characters within the coloured community of South Africa are explored as central themes in Bowers’ Black, and the characters are most hauntingly real and remain etched into the memory of audience members in vivid scenes as though they were really there; with James Ndlovu, Marybeth Harrison and Bart Black at the University of Cape Town studying law together just before the beginning of the period remembered as apartheid.
“Black is authentically South African theatre and an important reminder that democracy is about celebrating our unique diversity,” said Bowers. “Many have been the productions that made us aware of the ‘white’ experience, of the ‘black’ experience – the latter often in the service of the wider cause of political emancipation.
“In the process, an awareness of our much-vaunted diversity has suffered as apartheid’s nefarious simplicity divided people into white and non-white; blind to differences of class, religious affiliation and a labyrinth of other nuances that make people cultural beings.”
In the end, James Ndlovu confirms that Bart was a traitor – and it’s because he and Marybeth had had relations behind his back that he sold them out. James also reveals that he turned traitor too at the thought of Marybeth being tortured – causing her to go into exile when she discovered that both the African and coloured men in her life weren’t really as revolutionary as she had thought them to be, based on how they, essentially, betrayed their cause against the apartheid regime in its infancy.
Zara goes home after her aunt Rose is attacked and she’s discovered the truth behind her father’s life before he had met her mother Lena, bringing the chapter of her life full circle.
In the end, there is no ending but a faint suggestion that history will soon forget this too.
Black expounds on the very exotic and most alluring interracial relationships in pre-apartheid South Africa, which unfold and implode before exploding into exile, mistrust and isolated histories being buried. It is accompanied by a dramatic and perfectly timed backing score played live by artist Daniel Gedes, never missing even the fraction of a heartbeat.
Black is a production worth having seen for its sheer brilliance and bravery in speaking on the unspoken histories of South Africa.