You get plays that try very hard to be relevant and usually alienate the audience in the process. You know, the pretentious kind that punches you in the face with an “objective” political message. Then you get those rare gems that recognise that objectivity is a myth and that any story worth telling recognises the reality of the characters, giving you their truth as seen through a specific set of eyes… context! Those plays are extraordinary, beautiful and powerful. Those plays are the ones Barney Simon gifted South African theatre with: Plays with a purpose, a message and therefore plays that remain politically and personally relevant more than 20 years later. Why? Because it speaks of people, by people, for people.
One such play is Born in the RSA currently showing at the Baxter Theatre. We had the immense privilege of attending the opening night on 10 July 2015. Here is our personal, through-our-eyes, subjective thoughts.
My name is Barbara and I was born in the RSA. I am a trained human rights lawyer. The Constitution is like a bible to me and in my day job I have the honour of crossing paths with some of the struggle heroes who fought for the recognition of the rights enshrined therein. Barney Simon’s Born in the RSA for personal reasons therefore left me contemplatively speechless for at least 30 minutes after the applause from the much deserved standing ovation died down. It reminded me why I should always try to remain passionate about my life path, because there will always be something to stand up for and someone to protect.
Similar to the character of activist lawyer Mia Steinman, so captivatingly portrayed by the talented Emily Child, “law is my language” … her opening lines had me at ‘hello’. Because my eyes see things much like Mia, I related most to her and the way she experienced the collective and individual freedom battles (as well as the frustration of not being able to help everyone, try as you may) that unfolded against the backdrop of 1985 South Africa and the different, yet intertwined, lives of 7 characters. I was absolutely mesmerised, saddened and invigorated all at once, seeing the story behind our freedom through their eyes: the great personal sacrifices, the strengths, the betrayals, even the lies both told to others and sometimes to themselves.
I think that is part of the appeal of this people-centered play. Everyone comes in with an own context and relates to a specific character because of that context. As such, every person who stands witness to Born in the RSA will have a personal, incomparable experience.
This is a play of extreme perspectives. On the one side you see the brave union leader Thenjiwe Bono (perfectly embodied by the entrancing Faniswa Yisa) standing at the centre of it all as an inspirational woman, not afraid to sacrifice herself for her beliefs. Just by being true to herself, she magnetically draws like minded family and friends towards her and the cause. On the other side, you see the easily manipulated, self-important police spy Glen Donahue (Francis Chouler) who has no real convictions of his own and would turn against friends and family for a pay cheque without question if it makes him feel “relevant”.
Although the dynamic cast can all be applauded for their amazing performances, for me personally, apart from Yiswa and Child, Chouler’s performance calls for a special mention. Embracing a role cloaked in so much prejudice, evoking such disdain, takes great skill. Add to that a few just as sinister and misguided “filler” characters to his list and he truly shows himself to be a skilled chameleon. Playing a hero is tough, playing different types of ‘villains’ so convincingly, perhaps tougher.
The strength of the talented collective portrayals are by no means restricted to diary-type dialogue, but creatively merged with physical theatre elements, song and dance, to great emotive effect. There is a reason why struggle songs evoke such a strong moving reaction and a sense of comradery, because they come from the most honest, sometimes rawest, corners of the human heart and soul. The mixture of song and dance as the life stories of the characters unfold, is absolutely gripping. Goosebumps!
Born in the RSA is a great reminder of the struggle, power, and resilience of our RSA people. It is a commanding reminder of our history, but does not leave one feeling demoralised. It emotionally echoes the same unifying vision as Madiba’s “never, never, never again…” speech. This play has left a Barney Simon vision mark on my heart and soul, and I am a better person for it. Go see it at the Baxter Theatre, and get marked by your own personal experience of the power of theatre too.
My name is Fazielah and I was born in the RSA. I’m a writer and social media community manager and this play has brought home to me all that I forgot and did not understand about the struggle.
I’m a child of the 90s, a teenager of the 2000s and an adult of a 21-year-old democracy, whose memories and emotional ties to apartheid are flimsy at best. I attended a Model C school, earned my qualification at a university and my friends are all colours of the rainbow so it’s easy for me to preach peace and love when old racial and political hurts are raised and ranted about in the media.
Born in the RSA, however, resonated with me for that fact that it brought my history, my country’s history back to life in 3D and for that, I am thankful. Kudos to the cast for taking Barney Simon’s text and characters and embodying them in such a moving, beautiful way.
Of all the stories intertwined in this raw and emotional narrative, the one that affected me most was 10-year-old Dumisani, as told through his mother Sindiswa (played by Zanele Radu), Mia and Zak (played by Dobs Madotyeni). What a cruel, sick world for a child to live in where just hiding away from the rain sees you arrested for stoning the authorities and setting buses alight.
It’s a jarring reminder that parents were in no position to help themselves, let alone protect their helpless children. More than anything, the loss and utter disregard of human rights and family life are strikingly reinforced in Simon’s text and these actors’ portrayal thereof.
In 2015, where we are fighting for the repayment of money used for presidential estates, the removal of statues and load shedding, it’s easy to forget about the struggle that came before. Born in the RSA is a poignant reminder and tribute to our heroes – go see it!
The docu-drama Born in the RSA runs until 8 August 2015 at the Baxter Golden Arrow Theatre, with tickets ranging from R120 to R150. Bookings can be done through Computicket. Don't forget to take along a blanket to donate to the Baxter Blanket Drive that is running for the duration of this play.