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Born African presents us with a remarkable image of Africa

Deborah Seddon

Victoria Theatre, at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival

30 June to 2 July 2003

Over the Edge Theatre Company

Directed by Zane E Lucas

With Wiina Msamati, Adam Neill and Craig Peter.

Born African brings a Zimbabwean touch to the Grahamstown Festival. In the face of the political and humanitarian crisis across the border this production offers an intensely private view of that country. There is no overt treatment of the story that the headlines tell. Instead, the play presents a picture of a fractured society in intimate detail, focusing on the lives of three ordinary characters who live in Harare.

These are: Matthew, a young white professional; Constance, an elderly domestic servant, and Nigel, a young Coloured man. One of the production’s strengths is its subtlety of observation: deftly and imaginatively it sketches the pressures to conform in a society structured by racism, corruption and economic hardships.

The numerous characters are all portrayed by three male actors. They spent three months workshopping the stories that form the productionís narrative. They are made-up in a version of black-face verging on the carnivalesque, which adds a tragi-comic element to the action. The make-up, accompanied by impressionistic additions to a basic costume, allows for fluidity of identity as the actors shift between both race and gender to depict the story of each character’s family. This device allows an interrogation of racial and gender stereotypes.

The death of Matthew’s mother is the impetus for a tale of three ordinary families linked by circumstance. Having lost his mother, Matthew (Adam Neill) is bereft, unable to relate to his father or any of the old friends who gather for the funeral. One person understands and shares his pain: Constance (Wiina Msamati), the woman who has worked for his family for years and who helped raise him. But he shuns her tentative attempt to comfort him. Close as they may have been when he was a child, he is from any lasting connection with her by Zimbabwe’s racial and social divisions. He takes refuge instead in defensive anger, redrawing the boundary between them as master and servant.

Nigel (Craig Peter) feels displaced by the death — Matthew’s mother had been the first to accept him into her family after he married her daughter Julie. His relationship with Julie is complicated by his own uncertain sense of cultural identity and his own family’s violent history.

Constance is masterfully played by Wiina Msamati; the sections showing her story are the most powerful of the production. Hers is a story of struggle, work, and pain, of queuing for seven hours for maize, of being invisible and despised. She also mourns, she tells the audience — Matthew’s mother and she had been friends. At the funeral this relationship is denied. She is told to “stand at the back”. While others are allowed time for their grief she has to serve and clear up for the white guests — even the single black man at the funeral shuns her. “I am too black,” she says, “too black even for him.”

There will “always be a black and a white Africa,” Matthew claims, but the stories of Nigel and Constance complicate such a position. The new issue of black on black racism is told through the tale of Constance’s relationship with her son. He despises her status, and violently attacks others of his own race who make their economic superiority felt in his presence. Constance despairs for the son she has worked all her life to put through school. “His father left us when he was a child,” she tells the audience and pre-empts any sense that this story has been told too many times before by reminding the audience of their own complacent acceptance of her life of hardship: “This is story you have heard so many times and you have already decided to ignore it.”

The production takes us into the heart of the three families: schoolchildren named and placed by race, childhoods scarred by difficult, absent or violent fathers, and mothers whose sacrifices are scorned by their grown sons. The sons become more like their fathers than they are comfortable to admit. Nigel has become a replica of his own violent father, Matthew debates leaving the country while colluding in the racist comments of his white friends. His sense that he is an African is fragile, complicated by his knowledge that his white skin has structured his privileged but difficult life.

The one flaw in this production is the impressionistic way in which the story of Matthew’s life is told. More detailed attention might have been paid to his childhood relationships, particularly that with Constance, and to his shift from childhood to manhood. Because of this lack, whiteness as a category is to some extent left critically unexamined in a production where the unpacking of such racial identities is crucial to the impact of the whole.

Nonetheless, a vision of a country and continent is powerfully conveyed in this production. The foreign conception of Africa as a vibrant continent shaped by a traditional sense of community is exposed to cynical belly-laughter from the cast. The harsh reality that the play presents is a world where all people are forced to act for themselves, where all sense of community has been undercut by a shared desperation to survive.

Born African is a powerful effort by Zimbabwean artists to articulate their own identities, and in doing so to present an image of Africans to ourselves. On many levels it is a remarkable success.

boontoe / to the top

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