This drama-meets-dark-comedy follows the gradual crumbling of a traditional South African family while valorizing the importance of being South African.
The production garnered multiple Naledi awards in 2011 having originally been conceived by sometime actor and acclaimed scriptwriter Greg Latter, a man who can lay claim to prestigious credits such as Forgiveness and Black Butterflies, as well as the upcoming Night Train To Venice, starring Jeremy Irons and Mèlanie Laurent. Another power player in South Africa’s film industry, director Craig Freimond of Gums and Noses and Material fame, also lends his expertise to this powerful tale.
Protagonist Harold Smith is a witty, brazen and exceedingly passionate history teacher. Smith is particularly fixated with the history of the AmaXhosa, and continually stresses the importance of South African history in schools. Whether recounting the historic events of 1834 or going through the everyday rituals of Xhosa civilization, his enthusiasm does not wane. But Smith, a brash and foul-mouthed ageing white man who is often carried away on a volatile wave of euphoria and often misunderstood, is an unlikely poster child for patriotism.
This preoccupation governs him, serves as the blueprint for his entire modus operandi, and yet the patriotic aura in which he basks contrasts harshly with the opinions held by his children who have both emigrated. Yet Harold Smith’s fervour is enviable as, even after his daughter’s traumatic experience with crime in South Africa, his passion for his country remains firm. It ultimately raises a provocative question, which could be extended from patriotism to race and class: Why blanket an entire population due to a few isolated incidents?
Smith’s positivity is ultimately challenged when he is confronted with the news that his wife is suffering from terminal cancer. With a remarkable degree of stoicism, he is forced to envisage life alone.
Perhaps the most evocative and electrifying scene details Smith practicing the Xhosa tradition of ‘Ukuqaba’ while emphasizing the origin of the ‘Red People’ – the act of daubing a red clay over his face and body. The nature of this act highlights some questions regarding cultural appropriation, but the context under which it is performed certainly plays an integral part.
Death of a Colonialist boasts some solid casting. Jamie Bartlett is a famous and diverse local actor, who can also claim the recent Mandela biopic to his resumé. He completely immerses himself in the part of Harold Smith, which requires a challenging dialogue and a varied range of exaggerated nuances. Shirley Johnston, as the dying family matriarch, is also no stranger to theatre, and delivers her performance with her trademark naturalistic style.
Set designer Nadia Cohen captures the mood of small town Grahamstown with small and simple props, while Kanif Sebright, as the sound director, accentuates and heightens the dark and tense mood with gripping experimental music to tremendous effect.
This production conceptualizes how we define and relate to patriotism within the South African framework, while drumming home the importance of heritage.
Benn van der Westhuizen
Death of a Colonialist runs at the Baxter Theatre Centre, Cape Town from 31 January to 22 February 2014.