“We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth with courage and determination, drawing strength from our common plight and our brotherhood. In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible – a more human face.”
– Steve Biko
What is this human face of which Biko spoke? Are we any closer to it now, 35 years after his assassination? Jazzart Dance Theatre’s collaboration with the Steve Biko Foundation addresses exactly this question in a powerful piece that combines dance, song and theatre to produce a provocative performance. “In the month that marks the anniversary of [Steve Biko’s] death, this is a celebration of his life,” said director, Mandla Mbothwe.
Armed with torches, a typewriter, chairs and a pile of sand in one corner of the stage, the performers’ able bodies drive a show that takes you on a journey and leaves you with hope. The 16 member ensemble – eight women and eight men – packed the 80 minute piece with an intensity that I’ve not yet seen rivalled in Cape Town. This is not a performance solely about Biko and Apartheid, this is a performance that does what art is meant to do: it brings people together, engages the audience in a meaningful way and leaves the audience feeling moved and connected to a larger humanity.
On entering the Artscape Theatre, the curtain is already drawn and the performers are strewn about the stage: sitting on chairs, standing, or on the floor. Then the lights dim and the sound of a typewriter is heard. It’s an eerie sound, and in this context it conjures up images of a police interrogation room, with someone typing out details.
The dancers begin by quoting phrases which address Apartheid, oppression and humanity. “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house” (Audre Lorde) and “As angry as we have every right to be, we are here to kill the idea that one kind of man is superior to another kind of man. And killing that idea is not dependent on the white man.” (Steve Biko). These quotes climax as many people speak at once, overlapping and building in intensity until they break into a chanting song of ravishing harmony.
An onstage costume change transports the onlooker to a jovial evening in the 60s, with the ensemble dancing various jitterbugs in an atmosphere full of life and fun. This ends abruptly with riot sounds and the beam of torches used like headlights searing through the darkness of the stage. The scene is frantic: chaos and mayhem reign as the sounds of gun shots ring out over pumping techno music. The dancers’ bodies respond as though they are being blasted with water cannons and sprayed with teargas, and torture and inquisition become a part of the choreography.
And so the story continues, juxtaposing music and silence, dance and stillness, joy and terror. Through dance, physical imagery, sound, text and dynamic movement – all choreographed by the impressive team of Jacqueline Manyaapelo, Ina Wichterich-Mogane and Mzokuthula Gasa – Biko’s Quest strikes the perfect balance of drama, emotion, humour, and hope.
Music (some recorded, some live) includes sitars, bells, marimbas, the dragging of chains, the shuffling of feet and the pumping of fists, while again and again returning to the human voice, both spoken and chanting. More than anything it was the voices that gave me the goose bumps, but I got goose bumps a number of times throughout the performance.
Harrowing at times, the end of the piece lifts the sadness as if it were a blanket, underneath which lie life and hope, waiting to be celebrated. And Biko’s words linger on: “It is better to die for an idea that will live than to live for an idea that will die.”
by Suna Hall
Biko’s Quest runs at the Artscape Theatre until 16 September 2012.