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Lessons From the Frontlines of a Revolution in The Fall

This piece of South African political theater makes its US premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse.

The cast of The Fall, making its U.S. premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse.
(© Teddy Wolff)

Though The Fall was created by students of the University of Cape Town, all of whom were involved in the 2015 #RhodesMustFall protests that led to the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue on campus, there's nothing naive or immature about this rousing piece of political theater. Instead, this collective work, making its US premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse, exudes the kind of nuance and wisdom born from difficult personal experience.

Those 2015 demonstrations were more than just about getting rid of the statue of a British colonialist. Arising from deep-rooted frustrations with institutional racism that still persisted even after the end of apartheid, the black South African students that made up the bulk of the #RhodesMustFall movement used the Rhodes statue as a springboard to address other related issues: the class inequalities exposed by the South African government's attempt to raise tuition fees in 2015, and the gender divides of a society still locked into patriarchal ways of thinking. (These shifts in the broader cause would eventually get their own hashtags: #FeesMustFall and #PatriarchyMustFall.)

All of the black African performers in The Fall come from a place of firm belief in the necessity of radical change in South African society. Naturally, then, their show focuses almost exclusively on their side, without much consideration of the perspectives of white people and the government forces they're targeting. But that doesn't mean The Fall is merely a piece of agitprop.

Sizwesandile Mnisi during a more contemplative moment in The Fall.
(© Teddy Wolff)

For one thing, the cast-creators — Ameera Conrad, Cleo Raatus, Oarabile Ditsele, Sihle Mnqwazana, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Tankiso Mamabolo, and Zandile Madliwa, all of whom wrote the show with Thando Mangcu and Kgomotso Khunoane — don't stint on the human element in articulating their political points. Each performer offers a personal perspective on the issues at hand, whether through anecdotes delivered during the many strategic meetings that make up much of the play's drama, or through private asides delivered to the audience. Kgotatso (Ditsele) bitterly recalls his frustration upon being cut from the school's cricket team, despite all his rigorous training, because he was told he didn't "gel" with the rest of the predominantly white team members. And in an aside, Cahya (Raatus) admits his own frustrations at the university as a result of his being a nonbinary member of the queer community on campus.

Human nature, however, eventually gets in the way of sustaining that initial revolutionary fervor, as The Fall meticulously depicts in its step-by-step account of the #RhodesMustFall movement. Rifts develop between group members, particularly when the black feminist members — including Qhawekazi (an especially fierce Mamabolo) and Camilla (the more measured but still fiery Conrad) — discover that their otherwise progressive male counterparts still hold on to outmoded ideas of the dominance of men in Xhosa society. But the most sobering moment in The Fall comes when, during one particularly heated meeting, some of the members begin to suggest the necessity of sacrificing innocent lives through violent action in trying to effect change. The thin line between activism and outright terrorism is laid devastatingly bare.

Tankiso Mamabolo tries to keep order during a heated moment in The Fall.
(© Teddy Wolff)

The Fall doesn't sugarcoat any of these harsh revelations, speaking to the startling honesty with which these performers are willing to reflect on their own actions and closely analyze the successes and failures of their own movement. This suggests the kind of mature, clear-eyed hindsight that is the mark of promising young artists.

Politics is, to be sure, at the forefront of The Fall, and under the direction of Clare Stopford, Patrick Curtis's barebones set — featuring only three tables and a white wall as a backdrop — and Marisa Steenkamp's unassuming costumes deliberately stay out of the way of the characters onstage and the rhetoric and arguments they spout. The Fall, however, is anything but dryly intellectual. Original protest songs are peppered throughout, all performed beautifully by the cast, infusing the show with a visceral passion that matches the ardor of the actors themselves.

Ultimately, it's that sense of blazing passion that one is left with in The Fall, emotion that is nevertheless tempered by a dose of sobering real-world wisdom. These actor-activists have learned a lot about themselves, each other, and the world around them through this struggle, but however harsh their political education has been, they remain fervent in their desire for change. The Fall stands as a stirring testament to their adaptability and fortitude, with lessons that deserve to be heard and absorbed by everyone the world over.

The Fall runs through March 25 at St. Ann's Warehouse.
(© Teddy Wolff)
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