Writer: Kholeka Shange
Photographer: Suzy Bernstein
Within an African context, inkonjane (i.e. swallow) has always represented movement across space and time. According to Credo Mutwa, “Migratory birds are the souls of humans who have reached a high state of perfection”. Mutwa’s reference to birds as carriers of humanness is epitomised through Mike van Graan’s new play titled When Swallows Cry. In this play, the swallow is used as a symbol through which questions of migration and the othering of African migrants in the context of current global migration discourses are explored. This multi-layered narrative which is directed by first-time Director Lesedi Job captures the lived experiences of African migrants through the poignant and yet jocular performances of its cast Warren Masemola, Mpho Osei-Tutu and Christiaan Schoombie.
Van Graan’s characterisation of the actors’ roles destabilises the often irreconcilable protagonist/antagonist dichotomy. The conflation between good and evil; perpetrator and victim, makes for a nuanced and complex understanding of the issue of migration. In one striking scene, Masemola portrays a commandant who has masterminded the abduction of a white Canadian aid worker (portrayed by Christiaan Schoombie) for an exorbitant ransom. His reasoning is that history has taught us that White lives are more valuable than Black lives. In one of his monologues, the commandant recounts how the slave trade commodified and devalued blackness through the selling of Black people as cargo to White slave owners. The commandant juxtaposes this historic reality with White privilege wherein the loss of White life continues to embody an apocalyptic and cataclysmic disposition that threatens all human life, while Black life is simply disposable and thus does not matter in the larger scheme of collective [white] human life. In the play, the expandability of Black life is evident in the number of lifeless black bodies strewn across the stage. The commandant’s critique of the Canadian aid worker’s ‘white saviour complex’ reminds the spectator of the work that is at hand in dismantling white supremacy. This is particularly the case in light of decolonial discourses on the African continent and the Black Lives Matter movement in the diaspora.
What is crucial about this play is that it tackles prejudices and violence perpetrated against Africans during South Africa’s xenophobic attacks. In this context, van Graan does not limit the issue of migration to transatlantic movements but he localises the migration discourse within the African continent. In other words, his work captures diasporic movements across space and time.
Job’s use of multimedia to refer to a world outside the milieu of the play reminds the spectator that the fourth wall between the characters and the spectator is constructed and quite malleable. The skilful use of multiple accents by the cast as they transform from one character to the next within a matter of minutes continually jars the spectator out of his or her somnambulistic viewing pleasure wherein he or she is reminded time and time again that this is a play. It is constructed. Wake up. Be aware. Look at yourself as you look at the characters. Question everything. Even your own views.
One unsettling factor in the play is being confronted with Osei-Tutu’s popping eyes as he portrays a gun totting soldier that assists the commandant in keeping the white Canadian aid worker captive in an unidentified African village. This image is hauntingly reminiscent of the menacing pickaninny trope. In her recent review of When Swallows Cry, Lesley Stones of Artslink.co.za writes “Osei-Tutu uses his mad eyes to good effect”. Stones’ reference to a Black soldier’s eyes as ‘mad eyes’ emphasises how colonial tropes continue to thrive in contemporary society.
Job’s interpretation of van Graan’sWhen Swallows Cry demands a lot from the spectator. This work requires the spectator to question the construction of nationalism. It commands a rigorous engagement with White privilege, as all the characters that are portrayed by Schoombie are not as expandable as the Black characters. The spectator must be prepared to be engaged beyond the narrative as actual historic events and figures are incorporated into the dialogue. The spectator should know that he or she will leave the play having been a spect-actor who cannot passively consume the work without looking at the broader issues of national boundaries, identity and power.