On 10 May 2016 I was privileged to witness an amazing creative piece that truly encapsulates the evocative power of theatre. The internationally acclaimed I See You, penned by amazing playwright Mongiwekhaya, took my soul on a roller-coaster ride that I have only experienced twice before with Fugard’s Statements (directed by Kim Kerfoot) and Rondomskrik (directed by Hennie van Greunen). I See You is now part of the trilogy of plays that have merged with my theatrical spirit and will forever be a brilliance-benchmark for all other plays yet to cross my path.
I See You seems like a simple enough story: boy meets troubled girl, girl and boy get into a bit of a sticky situation, police takes boy away, girl tries to find him, turmoil, more turmoil, and eventually, escape and reunion.
But no, the power of this play lies not in the simple story, but in the nuances and cracks that it highlights in between. I See You deals with the hard-hitting, real-life issues that we as society so often skirt around out of fear that it may open up past wounds that we do not want to deal with. It exposes the cracks in our rainbow nation in a no-frills, very honest manner that I want to term ‘beautiful’ but not in the pure aesthetic sense of the word. It is beautiful in its brokenness...
It is beautiful in that it enriches you as a person, as it does not underestimate the emotional intelligence of the audience, but rather enhances the depth that it acknowledges as already there.
It is beautiful in that it perfectly highlights the delicate construction of the piece, the masterfully crafted script, the world class acting, the exceptional directing, the powerful design, and so much more.
It is beautiful in that it unashamedly addresses real, raw, human-centered issues, and rips the plaster off a wound that requires acknowledgement for it to heal… the fact that although we as a people collectively have an identity, we seem to have lost our own ‘name’ in the process.
As such, I See You, is really a story about identity, a search for freedom, and the response to a generation gap accentuated by different past perspectives and future hopes. It calls on the audience to stand witness to the fact that although we the people as a collective are all from the same country, we are still prisoners to our own pasts, and still shackled by our subjective 'truths', making you question (through the eyes of the character Ben played by Bayo Gbadamosi) ... “Are any of us truly free?”
This is the question Ben places at the feet of troubled former freedom fighter and now police officer Buthelezi (brilliantly portrayed by Desmond Dube as a most unforgiving, flawed and therefore believable character) as their pantsula dance of terror reveal fears and demons ignored for too long under the pretence of freedom, when he demands of Ben to "Speak to me in your mother-tongue and I will let you go."
I See You mesmerises in its multi-layered approach to this story and those of the other characters linked to the Ben-Buthelezi encounter. Within the first 15 minutes, you realise that you are a bystander to the characters’ search for acknowledgment as the story unfolds at both a macro and micro level, with the micro level play revealing individual ‘short stories’ that are subtly woven into the tapestry of the issues and emotions that feed into the macro level play.
Within a split second you have to act on a gut instinct and choose a micro level story character to run with, as that character ultimately becomes your macro level narrative conscience. The bonus to this being that you can watch I See You more than once and never see the same play twice. Even when you just focus on the details of design (by Soutra Gilmour), lighting (Richard Howell), sound (Giles Thomas) and movement (Luyanda Sidiya), you see the nuances of the narrative highlighted, whether it be the boundary lines within which the characters move or a mere box in which one protects his ‘heart’ from his own demons.
Through all this I See You as a play under the skillful direction of Noma Dumezweni demonstrates the potential of every person’s perception of history to inform ‘rational’ human injustice, while balancing that with the inherent human need to survive as fuelled by love and hope even in the darkest hours.
In the end, you as witness are called upon to (re)consider, what power lies in an identity, in a name? Is it really true that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?” Go contemplate who we all truly are behind the mask of identity, by gifting yourself the opportunity to be an eye witness in I See You at the Fugard Theatre before run ends 28 May 2016. A tip for your viewing pleasure, sit as close to the stage as possible. You want to be able to truly look into the eyes of each character. Book your tickets soonest at Computicket.