BY BRUCE DENNILL
When Swallows Cry / Directed by Lesedi Job / Laager Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg
Migration is perhaps the international political buzzword (buzz-kill?) of the moment, though its nuances are generally hammered into oblivion by nationalist pedagogy and a simplistic “us versus them” perspective. Playwright Mike Van Graan ignores the headlines and imagines a trio of scenarios that unpack the intricacies of the culture clashes that inevitably occur when humans cross borders, particularly in times or places where tension is pre-existing thanks to some real or imagined abuse or diplomatic unpleasantness.
The play reveals the intimate human dramas playing out in a hostage situation in an unnamed African country where the kidnappers are forced by poverty and circumstance to consider any means possible to access resources for their village. It looks at the goings-on inside an interview room at an American airport, where a Somalian national is treated with suspicion based only on his nationality. And it examines what happens when two Zimbaweans, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, arrive in Australia and are ushered into a detention centre.
As a superficial eye-opener, exposure to these scenes would already have dramatic value, but the layered script is so much more than just an introduction to a theme. Through clever, sensitive character development, the viewpoints of the three men involved in each scenario are slowly unpacked, giving the audience all the tools needed to make up their own minds as to who is wrong or right in each instance and about whether or not there is hope for progress in the future.
As clearly drawn as the viewpoints are, the answer to that latter question is at best, a qualified, uncertain, “maybe”. Therein lies the play’s power to emotionally eviscerate its audience. Seeing or hearing all sides of the story is not, as hoped, some global panacea. Rather, it is confirmation that world is a profoundly broken place and the source of many of its ills are entrenched perceptions that can be manipulated with worrying ease. And the world premiere of When Swallows Cry coinciding almost exactly with Donald “I’m Gonna Build A Wall” Trump’s inauguration as President of the USA does nothing to quell concerns regarding immigrants’ rights being given priority any time soon.
The cast – Christiaan Schoombie, Mpho Osei-Tutu and Warren Masemola – are all involved, as different characters, in each mini-play, and all three are superb, switching back and forth between belligerent aggressor and terrified or confused victim. There are very different accents to control and adjust and entirely contradictory moods to embrace and portray, and each manages without any apparent uncertainty. Masemola’s performance deserves to be highlighted – of three top-notch efforts, his is the one that, feasibly, will not be bettered no matter how long this play runs and tours. It’s a 100%, everything-on-the-table showcase, as compelling as the stories he and his colleagues tell throughout the play.
Excellence of all fronts, and an important contemporary topic.