Yes, the seven gifted and talented students of “The Fall” tell only one side of a complicated story. But that single side is riven with rhetorical complexity. And as this septet of South African actors piles on the details of the anguishing trials and contradictions of being young and black in a post-apartheid society, the more the narrative gains dramatic and emotional weight.
By the end of their absorbing 90-minute, fact-based account at Studio Theatre of the demonstrations and student occupation that rocked the campus of the University of Cape Town in 2015, you’ll feel as if you’re an enlistee in their quest for an equality of opportunity. Their collective outrage is conveyed in the final words of one of them, Tankiso Mamabolo, who tells us the fight for fair treatment has left her sad and exhausted, and with the scars of a battle no 22-year-old should have to wage.
“The Fall” is a fairly unusual, though not unprecedented, drama of global outreach for Studio. David Muse, the company’s artistic director, scouted it at last year’s Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, and it has since acquired international traction as a music-and-movement-infused docudrama of resistance. With its reports of the insults and injustices that students from the black townships suffer at institutions still dominated by whites, “The Fall” effortlessly summons associations with American protest movements, from the civil rights struggle to Black Lives Matter. In the context of an African nation, though, where the abolition of apartheid was supposed to have lifted the barriers that consigned a black majority to second-class status, the play offers an eye-opening glimpse of how intractably old inequities cling to life.
Inevitably, moments in this politically charged piece — created at the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town by the actors themselves, with the aid of a “facilitator,” Clare Stopford — are oversaturated with self-congratulatory speechifying and all-too-predictable jargon. “Decolonization,” “intersectionality” and “engagement” are some of the buzzwords the students toss back and forth until they sound as if they’re merely mimicking phrases they’ve heard in history class. This, though, is the vocabulary that gives definition to a mission. That being the erasure of the symbols and practices of a system meant to exclude them.
The story, interspersed with testimony addressed by each of its characters, begins with the students’ occupation of the office of the university’s vice chancellor and a spirited discussion of how to accomplish their central goal: toppling a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a politician, industrialist and self-professed white supremacist whose views helped establish the racist South African state. The white college administration’s own mulling of the removal of the statue is insufficiently definitive for the students, some of whom see it as their duty to be responsible for its destruction.
It’s the differences in approach articulated by the occupiers, a range of views reflecting the students’ economic, gender and ethnic diversity, that begins to distinguish “The Fall” from more doctrinaire at-the-barricades accounts. As the internecine bitternesses pour forth among various factions within the occupiers — male vs. female, gender binary vs. non-binary, richer vs. poorer, even humanities vs. science majors — any notion that the movement is monolithic disappears. And a robust individual portraiture emerges ever more poignantly.
The actors forge a compelling bond with each other and the audience in Studio’s comfortable Mead Theatre; the heated conversations of “The Fall,” about remnants of racism, access-limiting school fees, and Eurocentric course offerings, take place mostly in the occupied administration office. The sense of contained rage is enhanced in a performance space suitably stark and compact. Mamabolo and the six other performers — Ameera Conrad, Oarabile Ditsele, Zandile-Izandi Madliwa, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Sihle Mnqwazana and Cleo Raatus — successfully give the impression not only of memorizing this material, but living it as well. As a result, you’ll appreciate the sensation that you were there, too, at a flash point in the tortured evolution of a troubled land.
The Fall, created by the company. Facilitator, Clare Stopford; set, Patrick Curtis; costumes, Marisa Steenkamp; lighting, Michael Maxwell; stage manager, Puleng B. Mabuya. About 90 minutes. $20-$55. Through Nov. 18 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.