There is a Quiet Revolution in Pretoria

As you read this, it is likely that you have missed it, the quiet revolution of our stories happening in the State Theatre, Pretoria. It was a cold Sunday afternoon after a hard Saturday and my backside was firmly entrenched on the couch after a gluttonous session eating fufu. The 45 km drive to watch the Rivonia Trial play at the State Theatre was beginning to look less and less likely, but the memory of the wonderful experience I had watching Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, jerked me out of my state of slumber. The Rivonia Trial is the third play in a series called the “Legends of Freedom” that have been staged in the State Theatre over the past 6 months. The first two were Mantolo: The Tenth Step and Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu. The main aim of the series is to explore the stories of the unsung heroes of South Africa’s fight against apartheid, men and women who were willing to give up their lives for a cause that had no immediate victory in sight. I arrived at the entrance to the State Theatre and was met by what seemed like a protest march. The street outside the theatre had taken on a 1960s look. 1950s Chevrolets, Vauxhalls and Fords were parked outside. The cast members, as part of the play were toyi toying. They held placards that read, “release our leaders” and “we are proud of our leaders”. They shouted “Amandla” with the audience responding with “Awethu”. Singing a sombre version of Asimbonanga (We have not seen him); we were swept into the theatre with the cast. The stewards at the door were dressed in dull brown attire, the uniform of the South African police in that era. Instead of asking for our tickets they asked for our dompas, a reflection of the notorious pass laws of that era. We were led across the hall by white cast members dressed as the police. The theatre hall had been transformed into jail cells, with the cast playing the defendants, having witty banter with their captors, the apartheid police. A cast member playing a journalist asked a member of the audience whether the accused would get the death sentence or not. This was interactive theatre at it best. We walked into the Arena theatre with the stage transformed into a court room. The lawyers for the accused and the state were at opposite ends mulling over their arguments. The court room audience was divided into Blanke (White) and Non Blanke (Black). The sold out audience were sitting silently in anticipation. As I took my seat, I glanced over at Mme Thuli next to me, probably in her 70’s, her eyes filled with tears. Her face was stiff from concentration. The lines on her face suggest that she has seen this before and it was not in a play. Directed by Aubrey Sekhabi and Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom, the play is based on the 8 month long Rivonia trial of 1963 in which Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Lionel Bernstein Arthur Goldreich, Ahmed Kathrada and others faced trial after raids on the Lilliesfarm in Rivonia. Apart from the trial, the play explores the debate that was raging in the ANC at the time regarding moving from peaceful struggle to guerrilla warfare as documented in the Operation Mayibuye document which was under discussion in the ANC at the time. The cast consists of the who’s who of the South African acting scene led by Sello Maake ka Ncube playing Nelson Mandela, Vusi Kunene as Govan Mbeki, Lionel Newton as Bram Fischer and Emmanuel Castis with a shocking orange-coloured hairstyle playing Lionel Bernstein.  The one criticism could be that at four hours the play is too long and the strain showed in some of the actors who missed a few of their lines. Sello Maake ka Ncube was unconvincing as Mandela. Despite this, the production was historical theatre at its beautiful best. It is another feather in the cap of Aubrey Sekhabi, the artistic director at the State Theatre. He has achieved what seemed to be impossible, bringing audiences from different classes, races and ages to the theatre. As we were being led out of the theatre with the cast members singing the liberation song, Senzeni na (what have we done), it became clear to us that we had just been privy to a revolution in theatre. The revolution is indeed live…
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Feint & Margin

Feint & Margin is a weekly, online, Pan-African publication featuring writings and thoughts from Ordinary Africans who have Extraordinary minds. We represent the True Voice of the African Citizen.

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