"Born in the RSA" Review by By FRANK RICH - NEW YORK TIMES
Published: October 3, 1986, Friday

The play was conceived as ''a living newspaper'' by the director Barney Simon, the founder of Johannesburg's dissident Market Theater, and by his cast, whose roles are based on real-life characters caught up in the 1985 state of emergency. The simple format has less in common with our own theater's Depression-era ''living newspapers'' than with latter-day English documentary plays by David Hare (''Fanshen'') and Caryl Churchill (''Fen''), as they might be leavened by Studs Terkel: The seven performers often tell us their interlocking stories in turn from fixed positions on a platformed set decorated with smudged newspapers. But the considerable perils of this technique - stasis, didacticism, a tedious excess of detail - never materialize here. ''Born in the R.S.A.'' has the dramatic, emotional and intellectual energy that has been sadly lacking from all but one (''Asinamali!'') of the previous festival productions.

That energy at first radiates from a white villain, Glen (Neil McCarthy), a lanky, handsome university student whose body and shy charm alike make him irresistible to women. Glen prides himself on his ideological neutrality - he's seen abuses on ''both sides'' in police actions - but pretty soon he covertly joins the police as an informer. It's typical of the play that Glen's love life - a marriage, followed by a long-term infidelity with a white anti-apartheid activist named Susan (Vanessa Cooke) - is dramatized in more detail than his governmental dirty work. Glen gets ''a crazy kind of high'' from informing. As his betrayal of women mirrors his betrayal of blacks, so his exercise of power becomes a kinky sexual escapade.

The other characters are ensnared in Glen's web both directly and by happenstance. Sindiswa (Gcina Mhlophe), a black schoolteacher, is guilty of no crime except being the sister of the trade-union leader (Thoko Ntshinga) with whom Susan is affiliated. Sindiswa's punishment is the arrest of her 10-year-old son on trumped-up charges. Zack (Timmy Kwebulana) is an unemployed jazz musician who helps search for the boy, while Mia (Fiona Ramsay) is a liberal Afrikaner lawyer who tries to pursue legal justice on the child's behalf. The daughter of another activist lawyer, Mia cheerily introduces herself and the play by announcing, ''Most of my life has been spent in the front seat, watching history repeat itself.'' Forced later to contemplate once again how ''insane'' and ''unreal'' the system is, she says, ''Sometimes I wished I believed in God.''

As the characters intertwine, the canvas of ''Born in the R.S.A.'' gains both breadth and depth. This is the only play in the Lincoln Center festival to deal at once with blacks and whites, men and women, young and old. The characterizations are complex. While Mia is exhilarated to work for change, she is a chain-smoking widow with no children or lover. (''Feelings impede your efficiency,'' she tells herself.) Glen's wife, Nikki (Terry Norton), is kind to blacks and disapproving of white friends who desert the country, and yet she'd rather get stoned and watch video cassettes than be ''depressed'' by harsh black realities only blocks away.

Such ambiguities of personality allow ''Born in the R.S.A.'' to see South Africa's story whole, as a vicious pattern too intricate and circular to be easily smashed. The sweet musician Zack is so disturbed by the cruel treatment of his friend's incarcerated child that, to his horror, he finds himself inexorably driven into becoming ''the black King Kong'' whites fear him to be. As he fantasizes about cracking the skulls of white schoolgirls, the audience sees the begetting of violence by violence. There is a similarly eternal continuity to Glen's warped rationalizations for the police state: As he defends his informing by invoking the bombing of Nagasaki and even of Wilson Goode's Philadelphia, we hear the warped but undying logic of fascism. Glen is South Africa's own reincarnation of Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan.

Like the script, Mr. Simon's staging is not as simple as it seems. When the actors depart from their usual relaxed, storytellers' postures, they do so to concerted effect. A brief visit to a trial becomes a surreal, time-stopping tableau of romantic and political tragedy. In a jail sequence, a white woman's benign canvas sack suddenly reappears as the hood of a black torture victim. Such directorial modulations are matched by the performances' own subtle shifts. One hates to single out individuals in acting ensembles of this high caliber, but special attention is owed to Ms. Mhlophe, who simultaneously plays the anguished mother and the mother's frightened little son, and to Mr. McCarthy, who gives equal weight to Glen both as seducer and as faceless, repellent thug.

Glen isn't stupid, however. At one point, he says that South Africans have become the world's ''celebrities,'' whom everyone else observes from a safe and moralistic remove, as if apartheid were a sadomasochistic scene played out in a ''leather bar.'' His argument is supported at the outset, when jumpy, grainy news footage of bloody township confrontations indeed looks like a remote pornographic movie. But so effectively does this play integrate South African experience with all experience that the distance has evaporated by the time more footage is screened at evening's end. ''Born in the R.S.A.'' is that rare political drama with the power to make participants out of history's voyeurs.

 

"Born in the RSA" - Review by WAYNE JOHNSON - The Seattle Times,
Published August 17th, 1990 (that's the production with Arnold in the cast)

"The names may change, but the the game stays the same.''

So says a character early on in ``Born in the RSA,'' a theatrical sizzler about South Africa which opened last night at A Contemporary Theatre. This is the last stop for the production that was co-produced by ACT; the Northlight Theatre, Evanston, Ill.; and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

That quotation is likely to remain valid in South Africa as long as apartheid persists, along with other virulent forms of the minority whites' repression of the majority blacks. The freeing of Nelson Mandela and subsequent concessions made by President F.W. de Klerk boggle the mind, but recent news seems to reveal that even if the game does change, the names stay the same.

The shocking reports from Johannesburg this week are about blacks killing blacks: 143 is the death toll in battles between supporters of Mandela's African National Congress and Zulu Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha movement.

Distressing and depressing as that may be, it hardly removes the sting from ``Born in the RSA,'' which was developed collaboratively at the Market Theatre Company in Johannesburg in response to the reinstatement of an official state of emergency in 1986. Barney Simon, co-founder and artistic director of South Africa's only racially integrated theater, molded the play out of stories written and told by his seven-member cast.

The story is told episodically by a cast that here includes four American actresses - Sandy Dirkx, Ora Jones, Catherine Price and Jacqueline Williams - and three South African expatriates - Erika Rogers, Seth Sibanda and Arnold Vosloo. The artistic and human integrity of the actors is reflected in the fact that it's never apparent who's from where.

Simon directed the production, which began at the Northlight Theatre and will end its run at ACT. The format he devised is a kind of `"living newspaper,'' with all the actors on a neutral non-site-specific set throughout the play. They come forward, alone or in groups, to tell their individual stories which ultimately mesh in a series of particularly ugly racial encounters.

Projected on the wall behind them are movies of riots and beatings, and while an actor is telling his/her part of the story, a still portrait is shown. The color of all these projections is a kind of grainy blue. At the end of the play, a brilliant full-color portrait of Mandela fills the wall.

How could Simon and his actors even dream in 1986 - or in 1990! - that this vivid symbol of freedom for African blacks would be free, and a beloved, charismatic international leader as well? The mind reels.

The individual stories come together in a story involving a white male graduate student who is recruited to find a way of keeping the authorities informed of the actions and associates of a magnetic black woman labor leader. Nothing good comes of the intrigue, except the courageous dignity of the black survivors.

The play runs an hour and 40 minutes without an intermission. Some of the play is tough to take, intentionally. The actors perform it with skill and almost palpable commitment.