Friday, January 8, 2010

What would we do without South African apartheid? (Maybe face our own?)

Timothy John Smith makes Richard McElvain an offer he can't refuse.

Right now Africans in Uganda are pondering a bill to publicly hang homosexuals. Elsewhere, the African continent is awash in heterosexually-transmitted AIDS, and riven by corruption, forced starvation, and sectarian war.

Yet when our theatre deals with Africa, it focuses relentlessly on past questions of white racism. I don't mean to imply that white racism is never a valid topic of artistic inquiry, or that its legacy is no longer poisonous. But apartheid and its variants are simply not the most pressing problem in Africa right now - black bigotry long ago passed white bigotry in the depressing sweepstakes for the continent's greatest evil. I've never seen a play in which a black man threatened a gay man with death, or in which black men gang-raped a lesbian to 'cure' her orientation - but that is the reality in Africa today.

So why does our theatre remain stuck in an almost-nostalgic obsession with South Africa? Perhaps because we use Africa as a proxy for our own genuine, but milder, set of social ills - Boston may have great strides against its racism, but it's still organized in the style of apartheid, with a vast shantytown in Roxbury. (Yes, I know there's an integrated "collegetown" elsewhere.) But why doesn't anyone write a play about that? Why has there never been a play about Boston apartheid? Instead we engage with it at one remove via South Africa. Which frankly is a form of virtual cultural colonialism, and of course distances us from the harsh necessity of grappling with our own issues (while assuaging our guilt for not doing so). I'd like to think the theatre can do better than that, but so far I've been proven wrong - and I don't expect the situation to change any time soon. And it's worth noting that bizarrely enough, South Africa is the only place in Africa today where gays and lesbians enjoy legal protections, and where gay marriage is legal (unlike in most of the U.S.!). Yet we never hear about that.

So I find the apartheid-drama genre a little hard to parse these days - or at least these were the thoughts that floated through my mind while I took in Groundswell, the well-acted, and certainly well-intentioned, new production at the Lyric Stage. The work is at least from Africa (it's by South African playwright Ian Bruce) which gives it a leg up over synthetic agitprop like The Overwhelming, and it has been tightly directed by Daniel Gidron, and performed in thoughtful, committed detail by its three leads.

So I wish I could get more excited about it. But I'm a little put off, to be honest, by the playwright's assumptions about his own topic - he seems to imagine he can evoke his country's current political predicament via a claustrophobic Deathtrap-like thriller. Not that he's a master of that particular genre - his first act is sluggish, and his thriller mechanics are both overly familiar and baldly rendered: a threatening knife appears early on, and the "villain" is told repeatedly that he must never, ever drink (then guess what happens!!!). And there's the persistent problem that the "trap" Bruce's plotters think they have sprung on their prey is, in fact, very easily escaped.

Still, to be fair, the play evinces a complex, even-handed attitude toward the disappointments of South Africa's post-apartheid regime, and Bruce often conjures a convincing mix of tension and distrust from his three protagonists. Two are South African "have-nots" - Thami (Jason Bowen), the black gardener of a remote lodge who's in charge of the place over the winter, and Johan (Timothy John Smith), the boisterous, and possibly unstable, handyman whose past includes incarceration for killing a black man. These unlikely partners plan to draw a South African "have" - Smith (Richard McElvain), a retired banker visiting the lodge alone - into investing with them in one of the goverment's cast-off diamond concessions. But when Smith balks - guessing, probably accurately, that the concession is a con job - Johan decides to tighten the screws on him in more and more threatening ways.

But the playwright only reaches his real topic - the smouldering enmity between Johan, one of the whites who did the Botha regime's dirty work, and Smith, who benefited from it despite his private dismay - very late in the game, and then mostly as a means of hastening its climax. Meanwhile the script's single black character remains largely undeveloped in moral terms. So the play frustrates even while it intrigues.

Still, director Gidron and his cast generally hold our attention and sympathy (after that slow start), and Timothy John Smith in particular brings things to a convincing boil in the final scenes. I might quibble with Smith's basic likability here - I think the character's core could still be a bit more broken and alienated - but you couldn't fault the energy and power he brings to his character's unraveling. Meanwhile McElvain returns to a level of precision and attack I don't think we've seen from him in a season or two, and Bowen, frankly, is the best I've ever seen him (although the arc of his disillusionment and despair with Johan could still use some work). The accents are believable, the setting convincingly rendered. Just imagine what this team could do with a play about Roxbury.


  1. A few months ago you thank me for not writing a play about Boston College, and now you want plays about local issues? You are a capricious one.