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John Kani in Nothing But the Truth
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
When ill winds cease blowing in repressive societies, there is often agitated talk that writers will no longer have any dire subjects to address and that, as a consequence, literary heritage may suffer. This was the thinking when the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union was dismantled, Saddam Hussein was ejected from power in Iraq and the apartheid government no longer controlled South Africa -- and those are only recent examples. However, the concern always turns out to be unnecessary. When old issues evanesce after long and finally successful struggles, new and usually unexpected issues come to the fore.

John Kani has been involved in South African political theater since the mid-'60s as both actor and playwright and has played out apartheid's woes on stages around the world in works that he co-wrote with Athol Fugard. He has now authored Nothing But the Truth, a drama in which he grapples with some of the pressing concerns that have come to prominence in the new South African democracy. Foremost in his view is the plight of older black South Africans for whom apartheid perhaps ended a bit too late. He also looks closely at the friction between those who remained in their native land to fight the prevailing forces and those who went into exile and either returned for the 1994 national elections or didn't.

Having lost a younger brother as a result of police intervention at a 1985 post-riot funeral, Kani has written a play for himself in which he plays a librarian called Sipho Makhaya, whose son was shot some years back by the police. Sipho, by nature a good and hard working man, is preparing for the funeral of his brother, an exile who has just died in London. (The play is set in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth in 2000.) Surprised that his brother's daughter, Mandisa MacKay (Esmeralda Bihl), has arrived from England with ashes in a container rather than accompanying a body, Sipho's grief is compounded; it's further darkened by his loss of a vaunted library position that he believes should have come to him. He is also thrown off balance by the mixed feelings he has for a brother whom he hadn't seen for a couple decades before his death and whose inclinations towards activism weren't, as Sipho analyzes them, entirely altruistic.

During the two days covered by the action of the play, Sipho reiterates that, throughout his life, he made sacrifices that often went unappreciated by his brother. He airs his gnawing recollections to the visiting Mandisa and to his own daughter, Thando, played by Warona Seane. ("People always take things from me," he says, "that's the story of my life.") Mandisa, an aspiring clothes designer, is a cheerful young woman and doesn't fully understand her uncle's behavior, whereas Thando is a respectful daughter who cherishes her father for gallantly raising her on his own after her mother abruptly quit the household. The cause for her mother's exit and eventual disappearance is a question that has preoccupied her, and it's one of the pieces of information that comes painfully to light as the three characters interact while readying themselves for Themba's funeral..

There's no denying that Kani's heart is in the right place as he contemplates the predicament of a man who has remained honorable throughout his troubled life. Nonetheless, his dramatist's skills are not put to their best use in Nothing But the Truth. The play is earnest and has about it a dignified air, but it also feels as if it were written by the numbers. The clunky, grandiose title is only the beginning of the script's drawbacks. From the opening lines, where Sipho addresses his absent brother while shining a pair of shoes, the sense of someone planting exposition is strong -- and it continues when Thando and Mandisa fumble through their let's-get-acquainted conversation.

Warona Seane, John Kani, and Esmeralda Bihl
in Nothing But the Truth
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
In dramas of this sort, there's usually no let-up until every last family secret has been brought into the open. Nothing But the Truth is no exception. Catharsis is a time-honored dramatic objective, of course; and yet the process by which it's set in motion can lead, as it does in Kani's play, to the same predictable dramatic arc. Kani further lets himself and his audience down by following catharsis with sentimental conciliation. By the denouement, when Sipho is once again addressing his deceased brother, the play's stakes suddenly seem not to have been so high.

A pertinent example of the discrepancy between Kani's admirable intentions and his middle-of-the-road execution is a speech that Sipho, slightly inebriated and fired up, delivers late in the play. "I am going to write a letter to the President," he says with renewed determination. "I want to remind him that I voted for him. I put them in power. I paid for my freedom. I paid with my son's life! They must never forget the little people like me, the little assistant chief something who make up the majority that has kept them in power and will still do so for a long time to come. We have dreams, too. We have our needs, too. Small as they may be, they are important to us. We want the 'better life for all' now! Today! It's our time now." This is fervent, certainly -- but also, with its reference to "the little people," reminiscent of something shouted at a rally rather than a remark uttered straight-faced in one's home. Much wiser is a comment that Sipho makes earlier when he's reconsidering his memories of his late brother: "A man is much more than the worst thing he's ever done."

An actor of enormous persuasion, Kani's fervor isn't in doubt, and he serves his play well with a burly depiction of a man whose sense of himself has been eroded by societal and familial demands. When Kani performs, he brings with him the weight of lengthy theater commitment. As Thando Makhaya, Warona Seane also acts with substance; she is particularly effective at suggesting the hurt that has worked its way into the very marrow of a child bereft of mother love. Esmeralda Bihl adorns many of Mandisa's lines with a musical giggle that does much to convey the light-heartedness of a girl who has grown up privileged; when she's called on to reflect the harsher realities the character faces, she's got the abilities there, too.

Director Janice Honeyman shares credit for the production's creditable acting. Mannie Manim has provided the lighting design, Sarah Roberts the set and costume design. The costumes are fine, with one colorful dress that Thando wears to impress the visiting Mandisa standing out. Also evocative is the set, a four-room cinderblock house that features a living room, a kitchen, and two bead curtains through which two bedrooms lie. Perhaps most eye-catching is the living-room rug. Curiously, it's a tiger rug but not a typical tiger one; rather than being a tiger skin, it's a flat rug with a tiger design. As such, there is something about it that suggests wildlife comfortably tamed. Tigers are not indigenous to South Africa, but despite that fact, the hint of something savage having been subdued becomes an odd metaphor for Kani's worthy impulses transmuted into a safe play.

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