As a South African living in NYC, it’s often hard to keep track of what’s happening back home. The time difference and going about the daily business of staying afloat in this city is a lot to deal with. Not to mention that local news reports just often don’t include news from further beyond the US of A in their bulletins. Plus, you know, it’s a big world out there so by the time they get to South Africa, it’s when the president is resigning or being charged with a crime.
I remember when I was in LA on an entertainment news assignment in 2008, and was asked by the desk editor to file a story about the US’ response to the xenophobic attacks in the country at the time. Where we usually reflect news from outside SA at the tail-end of our bulletins, US news reports tend to feature a talking dog or other such amusing tales. Barring NPR, and listening to, and reading reports from, the country itself, getting a sense of news from outside the US can be a tad frustrating.
It’s for this reason I think art plays an even more crucial part in our over-stuffed lives. An artist can tell a story – in hindsight, far or near – tell the story as it happened and as it was felt by the people involved. And if the artist or artists have done a good enough job, elicit the viewer to find out more about what went down.
So it was for me with Haroon Gunn-Salie’s Marikana sculpture. I knew a lot but there was so much I didn’t know, particularly about the emotions of the day. And so it is with The Fall, a production playing at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. It comes to the US after having played in Edinburgh and in London, earning awards and high praise. I had heard so much about it and so was glad to have the opportunity to see it. And to let it take me into the complexities around issues facing my alma mater, the University of Cape Town (UCT).
UCT has been dealing with the subject of transformation and de-colonising and the takedown of statues and all matter of grey areas in between. The Fall, written by cast members who were students at UCT during the 2015 protests – #RhodesMustFall & #FeesMustFall – explores the events that took place around this time. With only 7 actors and 3 tables, the production is dynamic and arresting, and paints a clearer, if more complex, picture of what it means to fight for intersectional inclusivity.
Though the story may be a South African – complete with all the colourful slang that goes along with it – the issues are familiar to Americans too. Confederate statues, standing up for black lives in the ongoing struggle for equality and the issue of how to move forward when parts of the population have been deeply wronged are all commonalities The Fall speaks to. Sex & the City actress Sarah Jessica Parker happened to be in the audience the night I saw it, and was full of compliments for the actors. Moreover, she told them something I believe to be true too. Many of the words used in the production around intersectionality and the ways that different forms of discrimination intersect are only just being commonly used here now. These are things South Africans have been acknowledging and talking about for a long time.
“I found it very interesting,” Tankiso Mambolo, one of the actors said to me. “In South Africa, we’ve looked down on ourselves and seen America as this beacon of freedom. But I’m coming here and I’m seeing that we have similar struggles, and our country is actually more further ahead in having these conversations than the free world is, which is very strange to me.”
Art – be it from South Africa or elsewhere, I think, holds real value in helping nudge these conversations along. The Fall, for sure, has already done so much to create more empathy and understanding, and I wish its actors further success.