By BRUCE DENNILL
Violet / Directed by Dr Harold Mortimer / Lesedi, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
Violet, the story of a young woman with a large scar on her face who travels across a large chunk of America on a Greyhound bus in search of healing and some sort of validation, is not yet a well-known musical in South Africa. That may soon change – for a couple of reasons.
The piece, developed in the mid-Nineties, is set in the Sixties, at a time when civil rights were a major focus in the US, not long after another woman on a bus, Rosa Parks, had helped really launch that narrative into the spotlight. Violet is hoping to track down a television evangelist she believes can restore her face to normal, or even transform her into a silver screen beauty. That requires taking a long journey, on which she meets a number of other transients, including two soldiers named Flick and Monty. Their combination of military cynicism and gruff friendliness allow for the beginning of a friendship between the trio, with the possibility of more than that in the offing – a scenario the disfigured Violet is patently unused to dealing with.
This set-up already includes politics, sex and religion, but it remains a piece you should be talking about because it doesn’t pander in any way to whatever people might be sensitive about under those headings. Violet (Lerato Magagane) is insecure about her appearance, but she is otherwise a strong-minded young woman with the capacity to learn from her experiences. Flick (Thandaza Silwane) is black, and must endure the indignities of name-calling and other racism even when in uniform. And the televangelist (an excellent Lehlogonolo Clifford Thomatsana) suggests that he is only part charlatan, and may have genuine wisdom to impart as well.
This pleasing complexity is augmented by the decision to cast and present the musical in a non-traditional way – examples include Violet being played by a black and a white actress at different ages, neither of whom have a scar (prosthetic or otherwise) on their face; and allowing the cast to speak in whatever accent was most comfortable for them, rather than aiming for a uniform American twang. It’s arguable that this is simply a mechanism to allow for a cast of mostly young students – it is a collaboration between the Oakfields College Faculty Of Theatre And Dance and the University Of Pretoria Drama Department – to have a slightly easier ride in a production that will certainly be stretching their capacity. But it all works well. At no point is there a sense that the action might be more believable if Violet’s face was an obvious physical mess, or if someone spoke in a way more fitting for the State in which the bus was currently stopped.
In the South African context, such details will change as the play does. Beyond the piece’s immediate value as a thought-provoking examination of prejudice (from within and without), it has also been positioned, via an agreement between director Harold Mortimer and librettist Brian Crawley, as a development project. Crawley has agreed to allow Mortimer and South African collaborators Jackie Rens (Oakfields) and Marie-Heleen Coetzee (UP) to source a local playwright to adapt the musical for a South African context, with a view to presenting it the National Arts Festival. It’s the kind of investment – intellectual property; time; support; belief – that can make a significant difference in a young actor’s life. In some ways, it could be seen as similar helping a capable young woman see that her scars were just superficial marks and nothing more. Positive outcomes all round, then.
Some strong newcomers to watch, an enjoyable score beautifully performed by the ensemble, and themes that remain as important now as they were in the Sixties. An excellent start for what will hopefully be a meaningful long-term project.