Stories about "suicides" of black South African prison inmates have become so common in the last couple of years that they usually rate few lines in newspapers and little outcry among readers.
No one who sees "Scenes from Soweto," now at the Back Alley Theater, however, is likely to ever again take such a remote view of white South African brutality toward blacks.
Steve Wilmer's powerful one-act play relives the horror of the 1976 riots in Soweto, the black ghetto of Johannesburg, through the eyes of an educated African who begins as political, "bored with politics and really interested in pure mathematics." He ends up a revolutionary, naked and dead, strapped to a table after an interrogator has failed to pull information out of him despite all-too-vivid simulations of torture in full view of the audience.
To say the least, watching the prison official connect electric wires to Nelson Malubani's body and "administer" shock treatment, and hearing the prisoner's haunting screams, is not your typical Yuletide entertainment.
Malubani is patterned after Wellington Tshazibane, an Oxford graduate who died in prison December 10, 1976, charged with involvement in Johannesburg restaurant explosion. According to South African police he hanged himself - one of more than 20 blacks who committed "sucide" or died mysteriously in detention in the last two years.
Ray Green as Nelson Malubani personifies the univolved African intellectual, knowing how to get ahead, keeping his eye on the ball (the Oxford degree and a good job back home), even holding his cigarette in the proper dilettante manner.
His foil is Carlos Cardona, who plays a series of roles somewhat stiffly but convincingly: the liberal British student activist and the fuzzy-thinking liberal middle-class white American, neither of whom understands what it is to be black in South Africa, a South African immigration official and the prison inquisitor who end up killing Malubani. Green is used briefly as the narrator of the Soweto events, playing the role of a newspaper reporter spitting out the news in stacatto phrases.
The tight one-hour drama economizes on sets as well: Director Frederic Lee deftly uses slides to denote time and place changes and to depict the Soweto violence, as the play moves through six months before and aftr the June 1976 riots that shook South Africa's system of racial segregation.
And Soweto is what shakes Nelson Malubani's complacency with his fine job as a top black at his firm, Anglo-American. His neat little world begins to crumble. He screams at his American friend Jim, "They're murdering our children!"
Jim's only answer - a not-uncommon white Western counsel to the "impatient blacks of southern Africa - is to say, "Try to keep your perspective." And, oh yes, come stay with us in our white neighbourhood, but perhaps you, "who are really one of us," better not swim in the pool. What would the neighbours think?
As Nelson Malubani turns to revolution, the music tells us: "Without dreams a man will die. Though his flesh moves, his heart is in the grave." So he follows his "dream" and turns to urban terrorism, which leads to his nighmare end.
Green is superb in the closing torture and death scene after his arrest. The outrage of his naked body, stripped of all dignity and subjected to the torments of his inquisitor, is clearly intended to evoke memories of Steve Biko's death in custody last year at the hands of police who were exonerated of any responsibility.
The play ends as Nelson spits out his last breath. There are no curtain calls. The statement has been made. Nelson is dead. And so, perhaps, is a little bit of us. SCENES FROM SOWETO - At the Back Alley Theater, Thursdays through Sundays, until January 14.