“Speak to me in your mother-tongue and I will let you go”
In a land where truth and reconciliation tried to salve the considerable wounds of Apartheid in a multi-ethnic society (with no less than eleven official languages), it is little wonder that race relations in contemporary South Africa remain complex and challenging. And it is this subject, and his own personal experiences thereof, that writer Mongiwekhaya has turned for his play I See You, a product of the Royal Court’s international new writing development and a co-production with the Market Theatre Johannesburg where it will play next.
I See You, or Ngiyakubona in Zulu, or Ek Sien Jou in Afrikaans, or Ndiyakubona in Xhosa, to give it its full title, follows the events of a traumatic Friday night in Johannesburg where the conflict is even more multi-faceted, refracted through generational tension as well as ethnic. Teenagers Ben and Skinn are hooking up at a party but their revels are interrupted by police sergeant Buthelezi, a man having a terrible night with his marriage collapsing around him and far from inclined to just let this case slide as he whisks Ben away to mete out some punishment.
For Buthelezi was part of the MK, the armed wing of the ANC who actually fought for freedom, and in the form of this pair, he’s devastated that this is the future he fought for. He’s particularly angry with Xhosa-born Ben who can now only speak English and is seeing Afrikaaner girls like Skinn and over the course of a long, dark night, Ben has to bear the brunt of Buthelezi’s frustrations, of a society still coming to terms with the intense trauma of its past, of the realisation that Mandela’s dream of a rainbow nation hasn’t necessarily come to fruition.
I See You sees Noma Dumezweni make her directorial debut (has there been any greater pleasure equal to watching her rock the world of theatre from the storming success of her last minute Linda to being part of one of the most exciting mainstream casting decisions in yonks as part of the forthcoming Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and it is an accomplished start. She taps directly into the elemental emotion behind Mongiwekhaya’s text and in the sparse space of Soutra Gilmour’s design, leaves the audience with no place to hide.
Whether recoiling from the sheer ferocity of Desmond Dube’s Buthelezi whose rage seems to run at a rolling boil, or being directly confronted by Jordan Baker’s Skinn demanding that her constitutional rights be instantly met with just a hint too much (post-)colonial confidence, Dumezweni ensures we feel mostly keenly both the anger and the anguish here. And she deals adroitly too with the linguistic complexity, finding clarity even as characters slip between languages even within the same sentence, so alive to the power knowing what to say and knowing how to say it.
Anchored by a performance of great skill and compassion from Bayo Gbadamosi as Ben, the ideal counterweight to Dube’s scorching work, I See You is a fascinating, if horrifying, insight into an aspect of contemporary South Africa that it is perhaps not often considered. That said, Mongiwekhaya opens out the soul of his writing to make its questions about identity truly universal and in Dumezweni’s hands, a most powerful piece of theatre.