What would a young black man growing up in South Africa today know about the struggles and sacrifices made by those that went before him? Does he understand the price that was paid? What does he truly know about apartheid?
And, crucially, what if that young black man was middle class? What does he owe those who fought for his freedom, whose families remain entrenched in the poverty in the townships? Is it possible for the next generation to ever be able to move away from that shadow? Must they always carry that responsibility with them?
These are the big themes interrogated in I See You, a stunning Royal Court debut from Mongiwekhaya, who developed this play as part of the Royal Court’s new writing project in South Africa, which began in 2013.
So big themes but a small story for all of this is wrapped up in a short 80 minute play about a young black Law student, Ben (Bayo Gbadamosi), who is pulled over by violent, corrupt black police. The arrest is allegedly for drink-driving, but more likely because he was with a young white woman, Skinn (Jordan Baker) in a nice car.
But whilst Skinn manages to convince the officer to let her go, Ben must endure a night of torture and inhuman treatment at the hands of Officer Buthelezi (Desmond Dube), a policeman whose invisible PTSD scars are as searing as the bullet wound on his chest – a man determined to school Ben in the price that was paid by him and other black men so that he could be free.
This is a play about post-apartheid South Africa and, at its heart, is intersectionality. I See You skewers the simple view of South Africa as a country split between black and white. This country is split across many lines. So add to that mix the emerging black middle class, white poverty and misogyny and you have in I See You a wonderfully ambitious and intelligent piece of work.
Direction comes from Noma Dumezweni, whose extraordinary performance (under extraordinary circumstances) as Linda on the main stage just a few months ago is still fresh in the memory. The pace is taut and exciting, yet allows for just enough moments for us to glimpse these characters in their quieter moments, to see them for who they really are.
I also loved the unapologetic slips into Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa. Why should the play be solely in English? But it’s crucial from a plot point too. Everything here is fluid. And this is a country where two people standing right next to each other can’t understand the language the other is speaking. It’s all division and unity.
This is a little gem of a production based on a real encounter. Others have picked up on clunky bits of dialogue here and there but that doesn’t worry me. I love theatre like this. I don’t care if it’s a bit rough around the edges. Theatre should be diverse and inclusive. And theatre is at its best when it is tacking unexplored subject matter and taking risks. I See You is a play that deserves to be seen as widely as possible.
Jerwood Theatre Upstairs
Royal Court Theatre, London to March 26, 2016
Image Credits: All photos credited to Johan Persson
- Desmond Dube (Buthelezi)
- Bayo Gbadamosi (Ben) and Jordan Baker (Skinn)
- Desmond Dube (Buthelezi), Bayo Gbadamosi (Ben) and Lunga Radebe (Shabangu)