On political memory, hidden histories, and living remains

In the one-hander Black, Ameera Patel squeezes centuries of history into what feels like an epic condensed into about an hour of stage time. Adapted for the stage from the CA Davids novel The Blacks of Cape Town by Penny Youngleson, Black is directed by 2016 Standard Bank Young Artist award winner for theatre Jade Bowers and also features the musical composition and accompaniment of Daniel Geddes.

With a rudimentary set dominated by a board bearing a family tree, Patel flits between a host of characters (including Zara Black), spinning a story that is driven by an impending unmasking of a parent’s political indiscretion. Patel weaves through the often poetic script with ease and vigour, sketching composites of her characters with little accoutrement, often needing just an accessory to pull off the exercise.

The title of the play refers to how people shifted identities in the apartheid era, with Zara’s grandfather Isaiah Black passing for white. Because of the various ways in which the family has been striated, Zara’s is essentially a patchwork story that is told, in part, to mimic the function of memory and the fog of assumed and racialised identities.

Phone conversations and Skype calls connect family members estranged by distance, generations, political outlook and class biases. Patel nimbly handles these various strands, but the breadth of the story threatens to overcome her at times.

In this sense, Black is a story that rewards viewer commitment, with each piece falling into place as it hurtles towards its end. I suspect audiences who had read CA Davids’ foundational material may have had an even more compelling experience.

In the Gallery In The Round, Dineo Seshee Bopape’s Sa Koša Ke Lerole is also about ordering South Africa’s hidden histories into the public consciousness. Telling the story of the Polokwane Choral Society, a musical and cultural organisation in which her family members were heavily invested, Bopape seems to be concerned with how these tangential, personal histories interlink with wider political and social narratives.

Timelines, like the railway tracks of history, cross this circular, concrete-walled tomb-like space. A basement with several alcove sections in three corners, the room lends itself to audio-visual material. Bopape exploits its layout to maximum extent, creating a sensual overload that is both aesthetic and functional.

Sitting through some of the videos, it is apparent that the artist was after something other than a sense of concision. The interviews with choir members, mostly rendered in Sepedi without subtitles, thrust the viewer into the milieu of the performers, creating an intimacy not unlike that of sitting with them in their lounges. Many viewers, put off by the language barrier, simply traipse off in the direction of the various timelines that wrap the room, referencing both musical score sheet and a timeline of political events.

Tapping into the choir’s oeuvre, which at points included songs about figures such as Onkgopotse Tiro, Bantu Biko and Chris Hani, Bopape forces us to consider that mainstream political events were, in fact, not the total sum of political life in South Africa. And what constitutes a political song, or a song of political value? Do folk songs, the mainstay of various choral traditions, fall outside of this ambit, dealing as they do with communally shared values and ideas of self-upliftment?

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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