- Between the Rainbow Nation and the Melting Pot:Troubling Reconciliation with The Fall
Introduction: A New Turn Toward South Africa?
She stands atop the table, extending a hand as if pushing her way through the living tableau. "I heard Eric Garner across the Atlantic," she says, reaching from Cape Town in the world of her play to a killing caught on the streets of New York City.1 The invocation, one of many in her paean to countless Black lives lost to systemic violence, is especially poignant from where the audience sits: not in Cape Town, but in Washington, DC's Studio Theatre, just a few hours' drive from the Big Apple. It is a Saturday night in October of 2018 and I am watching The Fall, a play co-created and performed by a group of young South African actors who, like the college students they portray, were involved with the #RhodesMustFall movement that began at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The movement, led by Black and Coloured2 students, challenged institutionalized racism at the university and spawned other "Fallist" initiatives targeting everything from exorbitant tuition fees to xenophobia.3 Though its ambitions grew national in scale, its most iconic moment was the removal of Cecil Rhodes, the (in)famous imperialist once memorialized in stone on the UCT campus.
Beyond the overt reference to Garner, the parallels between the reincarnated Cape Town of The Fall and the present-day United States are manifold: mass demonstrations against anti-Black violence have grown in prominence over the past seven years; American universities have been sites of contest over Eurocentric curricula and racist historical [End Page 59] markers; and Rhodes finds plenty of company among the Confederate leaders whose memorials have been publicly removed from their plinths. These commonalities were explicitly identified in the marketing and dramaturgical materials published by Studio Theatre and in reviews from major DC outlets, including that of The Washington Post's Peter Marks, who invoked both the American civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter in his writeup.4 Similar notes had already been made in reviews during The Fall's previous stops in New York and even London.5 That The Fall would resonate with American struggles for racial justice appears to have been obvious. In fact, with the resurgent protests against police brutality and anti-Black violence in the summer of 2020, its resonance only seemed to grow, a development the South African State Theatre responded to by making a recording of the production available for free via YouTube.6
The idea that a South African play like the The Fall would resonate with American audiences is well founded. When it comes to matters of race, the two nations appear to share a unique bond forged by cultural exchange, political affiliations, and a perceived mutual intelligibility based on similar histories of racial segregation. Yet despite the hard-won victories of the Civil Rights Movement, the fall of Apartheid, and the hope of "post-racial" peace and prosperity that greeted the rise of Nelson Mandela and later Barack Obama, challenges to ongoing racial violence and inequity in both countries have shifted the discourse away from the achievements of the past and toward unfinished business in the present. In the years prior to the arrival of The Fall, my own mid-Atlantic region saw South African drama conspicuously programmed into several theatre seasons, often with the express purpose of inspiring conversations related to systemic racism. This included Washington DC's Mosaic Theatre, which ran Athol Fugard's Blood Knot and Nicholas Wright's adaptation of A Human Being Died That Night in repertory (2017), and EgoPo Classic Theatre in Philadelphia, which also presented A Human Being Died That Night as part of an all-South African season alongside works by Fugard, Reza de Wet, Matsemela Maaka, and a visiting production by South African company Abrahmse and Meyer (2018–19). Unsurprisingly, Fugard, South Africa's most internationally renowned playwright, remains a staple across the country. Recent productions of his work at Signature [End Page 60] Theatre in New York, including his MASTER HAROLD…and the boys (2016) and Boesman and Lena (2019), have used...