October 06, 2007
By Nelson Pressley
The wonderfully peculiar South African show “Truth in Translation” is a rare thing: a musical that barely feels like a musical.
For one thing, there’s the self-effacing way Hugh Masekela’s alluring, generally upbeat choral songs rise majestically and then settle back into the action—no pizazz, no “buttons” at the end to cue applause. For another, there’s the overwhelming nature of the subject matter: the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in the mid-’90s as the country tried to wash away its sins.
The remarkable quality of that effort is captured in this closely observed, splendidly acted musical, which wraps its three-day engagement today at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. (The production is by the acclaimed Market Theatre and the Colonnades Theatre Lab, presented here by Tribute Productions and the Colorado Festival of World Theatre.)
Conceived by director Michael Lessac and created with this company of South African actors, the internationally touring show focuses on a handful of interpreters deciphering testimonies spoken in the country’s 11 recognized languages.
“Do not become involved,” they are instructed. Fat chance: This socially and racially mixed lot, most of them live wires, come freighted with plenty of personal baggage. And how is it possible to stay neutral when interpreting—in the first person, no less—such barbaric human behavior as necklacing (burning tires placed around victims’ necks) and “wet bag” torture?
Lessac and company create the low diplomatic hum of the United Nations as witnesses testify and neat rows of interpreters murmur into microphones. The accounts are sometimes graphic, and so, occasionally, is the film footage projected onto a curtain of shirts (a kind of memorial) at the back of the stage.
The film is a negligible component, not remotely as interesting as the verbal battles enacted by the tight ensemble. The interpreters demonstrate an easy camaraderie off duty or after-hours, but this rapport is delicate, easily ruptured. All it takes is a particularly inflammatory bit of testimony or a touchy reaction for tempers to flare and fault lines to crack wide open.
A lanky white character named Peter is a particular provocateur. Played with a swagger and grin by Nick Boraine, Peter excels at aggravating sore spots. And there isn’t a lot of retreat in his combustible colleagues, from the strident mixed-race Alia (played by Quanita Adams) to a seemingly shallow, young black actor named Jake (Sandile Matsheni) and a brooding white TV reporter (Andrew Buckland).
The ensemble acting is fierce and expertly paced, with dialogue sometimes overlapping so swiftly, you get the sense of a feverish nation heaving up its very guts. An especially riveting scene comes when Winnie Mandela answers charges of her own brutality, an encounter that registers as a titanic, complex event. Even in its brief treatment here, it makes the recent resurrection of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill squabble seem like child’s play.
“Reconciliation,” Winnie Mandela sings starkly, “demands my annihilation.” Ah, yes, the music, played by keyboardist Sfiso Tshabalala and percussionist Ray Molefe. There are few solo turns other than a mournful stunner performed by Baby Cele at the end of the first act, and that seems apt. Even with their sometimes grisly lyrics, Masekela’s songs are implicitly redemptive wonders, uplifting harmonic choral counterpoint to the fractious and lamentable history.