The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs Spring 2016
The current National Theatre season includes August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, about the experience of African-Americans in the 1920s.
The playwright observes that his characters have no sense of identity or of their place in the world. They are 'leftovers', says one, bits of history that history has no further use for, just cluttering up the world.
I See You, by the African playwright Mongiwekhaya, suggests that something similar is happening in post-Apartheid South Africa.
The generation that fought for liberty served their historical purpose by achieving it, and now have no further role to play and are a bit of an embarrassment to have around, while the younger generation making use of the opportunities of the new South Africa do so at the risk of losing all cultural, tribal and even linguistic roots to give them an identity.
The trigger for this analysis and discussion is an ordinary traffic stop.
A black policeman pulls over a younger black man for suspected drunk driving. But the more-or-less ritual humiliations of the situation turn much darker when the cop, driven by his own demons and his resentment of the black middle class, escalates things to physical brutality and even torture.
His rationalisation for his blind rage is that the lad has rejected his black identity, while the boy is eventually driven to counter that the older man's only identity was as a revolutionary and that he is now nothing.
(Also in the play are a sympathetic young white woman, who learns that she is the most irrelevant of all in the new South Africa, and a few others who just try to keep their heads down and make no waves.)
The physical violence – all simulated and largely a matter of arm-twisting – sits a little uneasily alongside discussions of identity and history, and the plot is wrapped up a bit perfunctorily, suggesting that the playwright had little real interest in police brutality as a subject..
But the speculations on what constitutes identity and how it can be sustained in a radically changing society are effectively expressed and remain for the audience to ponder when the play is over.
Director Noma Dumezweni keeps things moving fluidly, and draws impassioned performances from an excellent cast led by Desmond Dube, Bayo Gbadamosi and Jordan Baker.
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