How South Africa makes the transition to a more representative government while dealing with its oppressive heritage makes a compelling and continuing tale of its own. Such is the context for Sweat, a poetic and impassioned play written and directed by Walter Kefuwe Chakela and now presented at 7 Stages. With events spanning from literally the dawn of time to yesterday's headlines, Sweat proves an ambitious and engaging work, sustained by its exultant music.
Chakela describes Sweat (also called Isithukuthuku) as "an epic poem in narrative verse," and the play unfolds in four parts that are closer to symphonic movements than theatrical "acts." The show begins with the 10-actor ensemble emerging from the audience, singing in the traditional South African a cappella style (made famous in the United States by Ladysmith Black Mambazo). Songs from laments to union chants ring throughout Sweat, which essentially qualifies as a musical.
Sweat's first movement offers a joyous version of the creation story, with the deity alternately described by such African names as Modimo as well as Jehovah. But the tale takes a turn with the words, "But man became too proud, and God created labor." We see labor separate man from woman and pit property owners against workers, with swirling images of work in fields and factories, complete with sirens, mechanical noises and assembly-line motions.
The show features an ensemble and chorus of four actresses (Kimberly Geter, Adrienne Reynolds, Robin Dionne Smith and Shontelle Thrash) and six actors (Matthew Johnson, Brady L. Jones IV, Duain Richmond Martyn, M. Sahr Ngaujah, Eugene Russell IV and Michael Anthony Tatmon), who take turns narrating and playing different roles for the 80-minute play.
With the all-black cast and the focus on labor issues as the root of South Africa's problems, Sweat makes apartheid seem more a matter of economic class than racial prejudice. But Chakela doesn't let white South Africans off the hook, either. We see the privileged gentry listening to Mozart while literally sitting on their servants, and later hear the words of a shadowy Afrikaner, "defiant and recalcitrant," who has no remorse for the injustices of apartheid.
Sweat provides testimony of apartheid abuses from South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One story begins with an actress speaking quietly of her son's abduction by government thugs. The rest of the cast enters the audience and echoes her words line by line, like an overlapping fugue. It's a device that can make individual sentences hard to discern, but has a cumulative effect of conveying how tragic tales like this one were multiplied countless times.
The play also shows modern South Africans having casual conversations in the neighborhood or doing laundry at the river. One group of fellows sees their cheerful chatting and insults turn into an angry argument over the country's Land Commission, and whether "freedom" has significantly improved the everyday lives of the poor.
Sweat's fourth and final movement eulogizes the death of "the people's poet," Ingoapele Madingoane. Though the passions of the performers and the writing can't be denied, unless you have some prior knowledge of the poet's work, you're less likely to have as strong an emotional connection to this section than the others.
The legacy of apartheid has twice provided thrilling theater for 7 Stages, where Soweto! Soweto! Soweto! A Township Is Calling offered a comparable combination of music and sweeping action. Soweto! was more angry and confrontational, although Sweat has no shortage of outrages, including shocking moments of atrocities in townships. But the play ultimately proves more reflective, with Chakela looking back to look forward, as if proffering the question, "We've come this far, but what now?"
Sweat plays through Feb. 25 at 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave., with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $15-$20. 404-523-7647.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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