Director Leora Morris helms South African drama that asks questions about culpability and bearing witness
By: Jon Kaplan
Most people would consider Duma Kumalo to have lived a charmed life, though they would also recognize him as a victim of apartheid.
In 1984, the black South African was sentenced to death as one of the Sharpe-ville Six, convicted of the killing of a town councillor. After three years in jail and hours before he was to be hanged, Kumalo received a stay of execution, though he spent four more years in prison before being released.
Writer/director Yaël Farber relates his tale as well as her interaction with him in He Left Quietly, in which she shows Kumalo as two figures, a young and an older man, and writes herself in as a character.
"I was at Yale doing my master's when Nelson Mandela died," recalls Leora Morris, who gave the script its North American premiere there last year and is mounting the first Canadian production for SummerWorks.
"I wanted to commemorate him in some fashion and looked around for a play to stage. My heritage is South African and Jewish, just as Farber's is, and I've had a sense of connection to that country although I'm first-generation Canadian."
Morris says she was uncertain about her right to feel ownership of the anti-apartheid struggle, and searched for plays that would touch an audience without doing certain things.
"I didn't, for instance, want to exoticize South Africa for North Americans, exploit someone else's suffering for the purposes of theatre, or be self-congratulatory about telling someone else's story."
The purpose of having her onstage is to help us see ourselves in this tale.
The director, whose Theatre Hetaerae has presented Horse and Engaged, read a number of plays before she stumbled onto Farber's.
"It's a testimonial piece whose story speaks to the experiences of those who suffered under apartheid and also addresses how difficult it is to tell that story," she says. "I'm one further layer removed from the narrative, but Farber's questions about what her relationship is to Kumalo's story resonates in my staging."
Having two Kumalos, one who lives through the events and the other who reflects back on them, gives a specific poignancy to the narrative.
"The young Duma is open-hearted and athletic, oscillating between total hope and despair. He's alone, in love and seeks comfort and friendship. The elder, at some level, is vacant, but he has found grace. He's calm, objective, curious and playful, continually challenging the Farber character - and the audience, too - to partake in changing the world.
"In a way, the older Duma is like the lifeguard at the beach, sitting in the chair and watching us in the water. He's our buoy, too, and without him I think we'd be hesitant to go on the ride that this play offers us."
Initially Farber was going to collaborate on telling Kumalo's story in book form, which then changed to the creation of a theatre piece. Only days before it premiered she decided to write herself in as a character.
"The purpose of having her onstage is to help us see ourselves in this tale. She asks questions we wish we could or don't have the bravery to voice, and at the same time raises issues of culpability and bearing witness."
Morris admits that the play takes audiences "through the gates of hell, all the way in. But along with its power there's a great deal of laughter, beauty and hope. It's not a huge downer but an affirmation of humanity."