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Nothing But the Truth
Leaders of successful
revolutions and their spokesmen become household names. If they survive, they ride their
star to become powerful players, if they do not, they are heralded as martyrs to the
cause. Those who march in the streets, the worker bees of the revolution, generally become
the worker bees of the new state, largely unheralded, having paid a significant price for
their efforts which may well go unrecognized.
John Kani, black playwright and star of Nothing But the Truth,
is South African. He and the white playwright, Athol Fugard, met at a black drama group in
1965 when apartheid was the law of the land. They have gone on to collaborate numerous
times, on topical dramas, most notably Fugard's play Sizwe
Banzi is Dead for which Kani won the 1975 Tony Award for best dramatic actor.
Nothing But the Truth takes place in the present time. Now in,
the new South Africa, where the end of apartheid means a black man can graduate from the
racial prejudice of his youth to the age discrimination of his late middle years. Sipho
(Kani) is a highly skilled librarian. A temperate man who has lived an honorable and
temperate life. As a black man under Apartheid he was quite successful. Now the library
has decided it is time to have a black man fill the post of library director. He counts on
being chosen only to lose out to a younger man.
Sipho had marched to protest apartheid, but it was his younger brother
who had been the firebrand--a brother who was favored by their father, who seemed to float
to the top of any situation, who became a prominent voice of the revolution, and who lived
in exile in England. His brother has died, and Sipho is awaiting the arrival of his
brothers daughter with the body of the flamboyant brother with whom he has not had
contact for twenty five years.
Sipho lives with his own daughter, a modest but independent young
woman, Thando (Warona Seane), in a simple, cluttered house. Sipho seethes with sibling
rivalry as he tells his daughter about the uncle she has never met. Simmering with fury,
he describes all the times he was hurt by his brother from the day their father insisted
young Sipho give up a wire bus he had spent four days constructing, only to have his
brother destroy it, to the years Sipho spent working, at their fathers behest, foregoing
the college education he craved so that his brother would have all the opportunities.
Despite the bitterness he is aquiver with anticipation at seeing his brothers body
and giving him the proper traditional burial in the homeland. Sipho is a very proper man.
Mandisa (Esmeralda Bihl), the niece, is a brassy young Londoner who,
rather than bringing her fathers body, has arrived with his ashes in a marble jar.
Sipho is appalled by her and besides himself because she has cremated his brothers
remains. His anger at his brother immediately turns to outrage at the flaunting of their
cultural traditions. Mandisa has planned to stay in a fancy hotel and to check out the
night life and some African clothing designers in the few days she is planning to be
there. Thando is both attracted to her bubbling cousin and aghast at her disregard for
tradition and lack of respect. It is the tale of the plain country mouse vs. the flashy
and alluring city mouse.
South Africa moved from racial chaos to relative harmony through the
establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Thando is a daily observer of
the process whereby Apartheid criminals who came clean about their atrocities were
forgiven so the country could rebuild rather than become mired in post revolutionary
chaos, recrimination, and retribution. She drags her newfound cousin with her to a session
and the airhead Mandisa comes back a profoundly changed young woman. Thando, too, is
changed by her cousin. She is more willing to confront her father and demands to know the
truth about her own mother who left when Thando was eighteen months old, and about her
uncle whom her father always refused to discuss, blaming his brother for the death of
Thandos brother who was killed in a riot. If there was to be public truth, Thando
demands her private truth as well.
Nothing But The Truth is a play that improves as it goes along.
Played without intermission, it starts slowly and stiffly, but the conclusion crescendos,
showcasing Kanis considerable talents. In the thirty seven years Gordon Davison has
been at the helm of the Mark Taper Forum he has chosen many works whose strength is in
their message. Sometimes this means that the theater going experience is secondary to the
political experience. Although Nothing But The Truth begins in that vein, both
the powerful finish and intricate story satisfy.
October 7, 2004
- Karen Weinstein