Created specifically for a global context, South African playwright Mike van Graan has done a superb job of When Swallows Cry. The work was developed as part of the Ibsen International project for the development of new writing – this year specifically looking at works with a migration theme.
When Swallows Cry is in its world premiere season at The Market Theatre, and people who know Mike van Graan’s cutting edge relevance to his South African context may have been surprised to find that the work doesn’t touch much on local xenophobia at all (albeit that one of the characters, a Somalian, found himself in South Africa for a while en route to the USA).
Rather the script comprises three vignettes, each with three male characters – a white man and two black men. One of the vignettes is of a Muslim Somalian wishing to enter the USA and on the eve of Trump’s inauguration it felt very internationally relevant. Another was a Canadian aid worker kidnapped in Nigeria. The third was two Zimbabweans seeking entrance to Australia. The work is rich in stereotypical situational cliches and racial nuances. The work uses an AV to facilitate the scene changes, but the AV itself is a stroke of genius. Often repetitive it worked as ellipses, those three dots of punctuation which indicate that there is more “out there” in this silence. Unspoken stories. Unseen pain. More.
The person who came to the theatre with me was uncomfortable. I loved that. Where Swallows Cry hit him where it was meant to. Theatre is not only, or even primarily, about entertainment. The Market Theatre particularly has a history of producing works which land a punch or two in the process of creating awareness and dialogue around human rights issues and contemporary issues. This is cynical, angry, bitter and twisted stuff. It unravels the pain of migration, sometimes across generations and certainly across continents, in a way which is not easy to watch.
In the question and answer session which followed we learn that the director for When Swallows Fly, Lesedi Job, is making her debut as a director in this work. Mentored by Megan Willson, Job has a deft touch with what must have been a very complex assembly The three vignettes are further split into scenes, interspersed with one another. Job gets it right. The only minor flaw in the directing shows in the acting of one character who, on being released from being tied up, recovers too quickly and painlessly. As anyone who has been tied up (and there are probably a few in a run, given South Africa’s home invasion rate) will know, the agony of hours of immobilisation and the blood rushing back into limbs sat on or tied up for hours is excruciating and debilitating. I realise that some effort had been made in this regard because the characters constantly flexed their hands while supposedly tied up, indicating just what I have discussed. It needs to be more graphic because it is more graphic in real life where being tied up can and sometimes does lead to permanent nerve damage. Nitpicking on a debut directorial performance from someone who is obviously going to become a force with which to be reckoned. I loved this. Some of that is the director’s ability.
Other creative credits go to Jurgen Meekal for the AV, Mandla Mtshali for lighting, Ntuthuko Mbuyazi for sound, Nadya Cohen for the set, and Noluthando Lobese for the costumes. They all worked well within the whole (thank the director). Because this work is a Department of Arts and Culture incubator project we also find incubatees Lerato Masooane (costumes). Tsholofelo Ramosepele (set), Mosibudi Maggy Selepe (sound), Dimakotso Motholo (stage manager), Tanele Dlamini (AV operation), and Lungelo Shange (production manager) credited.
I have left the performers for last. This is an immensely talented ensemble work. Three actors – Christiaan Schoombie, Warren Masemola and Mpho Osei-Tutu. Of the three, the one who reached out and touched me the most deeply was Warren Masemolo who cried when he prayed, who horrified me when he pointed a firearm at another character, who broke my heart when … you will see. No spoilers.
There are no easy answers in this work. It is unredemptive. The problem is ongoing. While When Swallows Cry should be seen by everyone, everywhere, it should be compulsory viewing for all Home Affairs officials in South Africa. The pieces of paper they shunt across tables are not cases. They represent people – people with problems. This play helps the audience get that.
When Swallows Cry is on in the Mannie Manim theatre at the Market Theatre Complex in Newtown, Johannesburg until 5 February 2017. For more information call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za
The Market Theatre is now serviced with underground parking and restaurants in the adjacent Newtown Junction mall. The security guards between the two are vigilant and willing to walk with you. It is all very convenient.