Oct. 4, 2004


Mysteries and 'Truth'

Post-Apartheid Play Bears Witness as It Tells a Story


By Rob Kendt



The path of peace can be as pragmatic as it is idealistic--a point that's too often missed in arguments over our current involvement in Iraq, in which the hawks often sound like pie-in-the-sky moralists and the doves like hardheaded foreign-policy realists.


For a brilliant case study in the practical application of peacenik realpolitik, one need look no further than the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of post-apartheid South Africa. Faced with a docket of hideous crimes committed over several decades in the name of the racialist system it had only recently cast off, the government of Nelson Mandela decided in the mid-1990s that a new, multiracial South Africa simply couldn't afford retribution. The systemic scale of the offenses was too great, the matter of fairness too thorny, the racial politics too divisive.


So, rather than plunge the nation into a grim festival of Robespierrean payback, Mandela's government created the TRC, which granted some perpetrators amnesty in return for full disclosure of their crimes. Families of activists shot by the police, say, could receive the closure of knowing the truth about who did what to whom, and could enjoy the not inconsiderable catharsis of putting their own horrific stories on the record. They just wouldn't get the dubious satisfaction of seeing their old oppressors pay.


John Kani's Nothing But the Truth, at the Mark Taper Forum through Nov. 7, is essentially an impassioned if negligibly dramatic Socratic dialogue inspired by the complicated legacy of the TRC. In one scale is weighed the terrible emotional cost of such all-encompassing forgiveness, of sublimating the human craving for justice in the name of a larger cause; in the other scale, we are made to feel, with quiet, devastating force, the much deeper spiritual toll of not forgiving.


Kani, who wrote the play and stars as Sipho, a dutiful assistant librarian on the verge of retirement, smartly humanizes the knotty complexities of the larger struggle--and of struggles within the Struggle--by focusing on crimes of the heart as much as of the body politic.


It's 2000, six years into South Africa's new-born freedom from apartheid, and Sipho's late brother, Themba, has recently died in London. Though ostensibly an exile and a beloved hero of the Struggle, Themba had curiously overstayed the need for political asylum; he now returns to his homeland as ashes in a plastic urn borne by his Anglified daughter, Mandisa (Esmeralda Bihi).


Upon her arrival, she and Sipho's own grown daughter Thando (Warona Seane) set to work prying home truths from the old man. Are we shocked at the reasons for the brothers' estrangement? Not exactly, any more than we're surprised by the melodramatic moment when Sipho, after being badgered for the whole story by the two women, turns to them and warns, "You asked for it." They aren't going to like it, he says, but they'd better "sit down and take it." We're already sitting, thanks.


Indeed, Kani isn't satisfied to let us find the resonances between Sipho's fraternal grudge and black Africans' long list of justifiable grievances, or feel the way anger can hold a people hostage, on our own. Instead he states, and states again, the parallels, the meanings, the ironies.


This tendency to overstatement eventually deadens the play's drama, even as the quiet, overlooked Sipho finally lets loose a passionate aria of rage and redemption, followed by still more breakthroughs and affirmations. Apropos this testimonial mission, Janice Honeyman's straightforward direction works best when she gives the play the tone of a public forum, with the acting style out front, almost verging on direct address. Indeed, Sipho's climactic, dam-bursting monologues feel like they're happening more for our benefit--and for the ears and eyes of a world audience--than for the two women sitting and crying in his study.


So Nothing But the Truth springs from an urge to testify, to bear witness, more than it does the need to tell a story. Measured by that bar it's a smashing success, and as such it's a fitting start to the last season of Taper impresario Gordon Davidson, whose career at its best has been driven by a similar motivation. In short, there is more than just truth-telling in Nothing But the Truth, but not very much more.