Another time, another 'Country'; enduring truths

Do you remember reading "Cry, the Beloved Country" in a high-school English class? Back then I approached the book with the lack of enthusiasm so many students have for assignments, yet I quickly found myself riveted to the story and mesmerized by the magnificence of the writing. I loved the discussions it generated: of the pernicious effects of racism, of hope vs. despair and of forgiveness vs. vengeance. All of these concepts and many others are raised by Book-It's powerful current production. And through the magic of theater, they seem to resonate more deeply.

It's not a happy tale. Alan Paton wrote it in 1948 about his beloved South Africa, which was self-destructing as the vile constraints of apartheid were formalized. He gives witness to the tragedies of that time and place.

The central character is Stephan Kumalo, a Zulu Anglican pastor who travels from his small village in Natal to Johannesburg to look for his sister, his brother and his only child, Absalom, all of whom have left home seeking an improved existence. His journey takes him from the quiet, superficially beautiful countryside to the frenetic city with its slums, criminality and job opportunities. Through arduous searching, he manages to find each of his loved ones, and in every case the discovery brings pain and sorrow.

At the same time, another family, this one British, makes its own sad journey from the countryside to Johannesburg. Arthur, the only son of these parents, has been murdered, a sacrificial victim in an unjust society. And we find that the tragedy of his death is interwoven with the tragedies of Rev. Kumalo.

William Hall Jr., as Stephen Kumalo, is superb in his role. Kumalo is a man of great dignity, one who refuses ever to give up hope for his fellow humans. Hall beautifully exemplifies Kumalo's moral strength even as he appears to physically decline before our eyes. And Kumalo does deteriorate. With each shocking Johannesburg experience, he relies more heavily on his cane. The tremors in his hands increase; his back becomes more hunched. Yet his commitment to a religious belief that demands forgiveness never wavers, nor does his sense that only love is all-powerful.

With few exceptions, the entire cast is outstanding. But as W.C. Fields well knew, be wary of child actors: they either steal the show or diminish it. When they don't speak clearly, even the cutest kids are no asset.

Throughout the play, the beloved country exists almost as a character in the wings. We can't see the beauty of the land because our attention is focused on the wrongs of its people. But they see its hills, its sunsets. They hold the land dear, even as their interactions with one another defile it.

The production team made no attempt to depict this beloved country, perhaps wisely. Given the limitations of the Center House Theatre space, it was probably impossible to evoke South Africa's beauty; better then to leave it an off-stage presence.

The team focused instead on manmade elements. Corrugated tin sheets hanging at the rear of the stage, sculptural, yet suggestive of shanty towns. A line of dirt-encrusted cloths to evoke the entryway into Zulu homes and missionary posts. Wooden platforms to serve variously as homes, house of prostitution, courtroom and bus stops. The lighting worked well to highlight the action.

The full weight of South African injustice is a heavy burden. It was almost too heavy for the first act in which so much background had to be established. This was to the detriment of character development. But the second act more than overcame the weaknesses of the first. It was gut-wrenching, totally engrossing.

Although the play takes place in another land at another time, the adapter, Stefan Graves Lanfer, and director Myra Platt have, through their choices, made sure that Paton's messages speak directly to contemporary audiences. The play reminds us that we are all victimized when our nations are ruled by fear, that the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear are equally incapacitating. We are also reminded that selfish goals create corrupt governments, that it's more important to speak the truth than it is to make money. "Cry, the Beloved Country" is about more than racism.

Once again, in the presence of a play, especially one with a liberal agenda, the Seattle audience jumped to its feet the moment the show was over. How, I wonder, do we honor the truly momentous theatrical or musical work now that standing ovations have become so commonplace?[[In-content Ad]]