In 1994 apartheid officially ended in South Africa. The country’s constitution was rewritten and general elections were freely held. With the election of South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, released from prison a short four years prior, the last vestiges of the apartheid system were finally outlawed.
And so ends centuries of racial struggle and decades of acute persecution. The signs designating "Blacks, Coloured, and Asians" are gone. Forced relocation is gone. It is all gone. Except for the scars, except for the pronounced cicatrices stitched into the emotional skin of nearly every former resident of the ten homelands established in South Africa as a relocation for that country’s Black citizenry.
Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise, a play showcased at the Walker Art Institute this past February, exposes these wounds, displaying for the audience the realities of growing up under government-sanctioned racism. Through the self-revealing stories of the actors, we witness the disintegration of families torn apart by resettlement and the beauty of self-discovery robbed by the brutality of gangs.
Ground-breaking in it’s portrayal of the ravishes of racism, Amajuba begins the healing process, says director and playwright Yael Farber.
"I was commissioned by the North West Arts Council to write and direct anything I wanted," Farber tells me by phone before their run at the Walker.
Working with five resident actors who were employed by the arts council at the time, Farber elicited their life stories as children under a minority-lead country.
"Once they agreed to share their stories, I went about with interviews," Farber says.
Farber acknowledges that she grew up on "the other side," in Johannesburg as a member of the elite. "I felt very strongly about the need to be a part of the healing," she confesses.
Thursday night, on a stage bare of any scenery, the five actors commence to tell their stories. Out of darkness a single voice begins to sing, lamentation mixed with hope is heard in the strong, distinctive South African choral voices.
“We are the lost generation of our country,” says one voice.
Another cries out, “Our lives were governed by hunger.”
We hear, “Why do I grieve for what was never mine?”
The stage lights rise and we see each performer standing or sitting in her or her own wash tub. One by one they recount that universal experience of being washed by their mothers as young children. But then the innocence is stripped away as parents are killed or disappear and children are raised by siblings, extended family, or on the streets as orphans.
Each of the five actors tells his or her own story. Vulnerable during their childhood and again in exposing their most defenseless selves to an audience of over 330 people takes courage. Courage is one trait we’ve seen in each of them.
“All I have is the voice God gave me to sing with,” one actor says as much to her fellow actors as to the audience.
And another actor, remembering himself as a small boy, “I don’t remember what it is to be afraid anymore and sometimes I wish I could.”
Still they have carried on, persevering during a time of legalized racism. Beyond the unique stories told by each actor: the gut-wrenching account of an eight year old orphan abandoned to fend for herself, the ache of watching a young boy shift miserably between groups as he searches for a place that a "half-breed" might claim, and the unfathomable shock of watching a young woman undergo the barrel of a pistol shoved in her mouth and who knows where else as she submits to gang behavior, Ms. Farber provides a platform for the actors to tell their story and the audience to fully absorb an uncomfortable tale.
More than observing a play, we are drawn into the experience. When the cast washes away implied tear gas, they splash water far across the stage, sprinkling the first few rows of the audience. And when they bury their dead, shovel upon shovel of red, dusty dirt is flung from corner to corner, billowing up and filtering into the air as we breath and we can not avoid smelling the organic earth and feeling it tickle our nostrils, as we become a part of the burial.
A post-show panel discussion keeps many in the audience in their places. Moderated by Reggie Prim, Community Programs Coordinator for the Walker Art Center, discussion starts with recognizing the impact of apartheid in the United States today.
Panelist Myron Orfield, Executive Director at the Institute of Race and Poverty, points out, “The whole process of racial integration that occurred throughout the sixties, has taken a step backward. Last year we became more segregated than we were in 1968. Apartheid is very real here.”
Hearing this, Prim exclaims, "That’s shocking. These may be the stories in the past of apartheid, but racism and apartheid and segregation are very sneaky devils and seem to be on the rise once more."
Acknowledging the arduous journey each actor had to make in recounting the struggle to survive in the townships and then to perform those stories over and over, actor Bongeka Mongwana says, "But if we hadn’t gone through [remembering the painful stories] we would not have found what we have found now. It’s very hard to explain what that is that we have found and because it’s too extraordinary. I would not have accomplished all that I have had I not gone through this process. So, it’s been good, it’s been really good. It gets dark before the nighttime ends, look what’s happened to all of us," she concludes, smiling.
Before the evening ended, I asked about the stunning music sung during the performance.
Jabulile Tshabalala firmly tells us, “We are a singing nation.”
And in spite of all the hardships they have suffered, not only like doves do they rise, but like all birds, they continue to sing.