Philip Tindisa, Tshallo Chokwe, Jabu Tshabalala
and Bongi Mpongwana in Amajuba
(Photo © Robert Day)
Philip Tindisa, Tshallo Chokwe, Jabu Tshabalala
and Bongi Mpongwana in Amajuba
(Photo © Robert Day)
Visiting the Culture Project from South Africa, Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise introduces us to Tshallo Chockwe, Roelf Matlala, Bongeka Mpongwana, Philip "Tipo" Tindisa, and Jabulile Tshabalala. These five actors from the country's turbulent townships perform heartbreaking and inspiring vignettes in a thrilling American premiere.

As is indicated by the title, this is a show about hardship and redemption. It was created and directed by Yael Farber, who penned the script in collaboration with the cast. Mpongwana starts things off with her tale of being abandoned as a very young girl and making her own way in a suffering village. Then Matlala speaks of growing up as a light-skinned, biracial boy after apartheid -- a "crime" that results in his being bullied by his peers and beaten by his teacher.

Next, Tindisa recounts his family's forced relocation. Perhaps the most horrifying testimonial is that of Tshabalala, who relives being raped and brutalized by a gang. Finally, Chockwe tells of being a teenaged militant and witnessing the mass lynching of his friends.

This is theater at its most personal and riveting. One wonders how the performers feel about reliving some of their most traumatic memories on a nightly basis. An answer comes towards the end of the play, when one of them asserts, "I don't want your pity. I just want to remember who I was before this."

An array of performance styles sets Amajuba apart from mere testimonial. The cast members sing traditional songs and prayers with booming, beautiful voices, and they have choreographed their own dance routines. In one scene, a cruel teacher is depicted as a giant with one actress on the shoulders of a fellow actor, her enormous skirt covering him entirely.

In her capacity as director, Farber manages to suggest several different landscapes with a few spare tools. The only props are a few ceramic bowls and metallic washbasins. The extremely talented actors do not wear elaborate costumes, only black t-shirts and blue jeans; they move their bodies so as to indicate a moving train, showers, doors, stools, etc. At various points in the show, they cover themselves with sand and throw water on their bodies to create striking stage images.

Although the narration is in English, most of the dialogue and songs are in Afrikaans and other regional dialects. But don't worry; it's easy to follow the stories through the actors' body language alone. In short, there is no excuse for the savvy theatergoer to miss Amajuba.