“Audience participation” is rare these days in theatre for adults, but there’s a striking instance of it in your staging of Yael Farber’s play He Left Quietly, which won the Outstanding Production jury prize at Toronto’s SummerWorks Performance Festival last week.
After we witness the monologue of one Duma Kumalo, who tells us of his life on death row in apartheid-era South Africa for a crime he didn’t commit, members of the audience are called onstage to match pairs of old shoes—shoes, we understand, stripped from prisoners whom the unjust regime murdered.
It’s a powerful moment in your clear, spare production, which is anchored by the detailed and natural performances you’ve drawn from your three actors. As a theatrical gesture, it involves your audience both as itself and as a stand-in for South Africa’s privileged bystanders to apartheid’s crimes. It suggests the audience’s culpability, however passive, for those crimes, as well as its power to repair or at least ease the traumas of the past. At the performance I attended, it created a palpable stir in the house.
It also made me quite angry. In the time since I saw your show, I’ve tried to unpack why.
First of all, I should say: I hadn’t intended to write critically about the work I saw at Toronto’s big summer theatre festivals, the Fringe and SummerWorks. These festivals provide spaces for experimentation and are full of young artists (like you and me) just starting to sort out their aesthetic and process. The more I saw shows at the Fringe in July, the more I felt it’d be wrong to treat that work the way I’d treat a play that’s had years of development through funded theatres, capped by a production with an institutional imprimatur.
Toronto’s true indie, i.e. low- to no-budget, theatre scene is marginal; to critique one of its offerings can feel a bit like claiming that a man singing off-key in the shower is taking our culture in the wrong direction. When I started this website, I thought I’d write about grassroots theatre only if I could be boosterish, draw attention to exceptional work that might otherwise get overlooked.
Then, in the week after I saw He Left Quietly, a couple of things happened. First, your production was a huge critical and popular success, crowned with the prestigious SummerWorks Festival’s highest prize. It became notable. At the same time, I grew mesmerized by the news coming out of Iraq, the public crucifixions and mass murders and attempted genocide of the Yazidi people by the upstart extremist group ISIS.
Even though, as you know, I think you’re a genius and one of my favourite theatre minds anywhere, and we’ve collaborated recently and I want only massive success for you, I was disturbed by the combination of your show’s wide acclaim and my experience of the world that week. More than disturbed: I found it quite depressing.
Why? Why feel demoralized by the success of a heartfelt theatrical testimony of one of apartheid’s survivors?
Consider an early South African production of the play. In 2002, an audience sits in Pretoria, South Africa—the administrative capital, where the apartheid laws were written—and waits for He Left Quietly to begin. When the lights rise, Duma Kumalo, whose story the play recounts, is onstage. The man himself. He’s not alone up there, another performer plays his younger self and a third plays an unnamed white woman, but he anchors the storytelling; the story is his. It’s also the audience’s: no adult in that theatre can fail to have a personal relationship, and in most cases a fraught and emotional relationship, to the facts of apartheid. They own the story not in abstract, as members of the global human community (or some equally shaky construct), but as participants in a traumatic political experience that has touched their lives directly.
When the play speaks of the culpability of privileged people who stood by and ignored the wrongs done to their fellow men and women, it implicates concretely the South African audience seated in that room. When it compares this willful ignorance to that of German civilians in the Third Reich—a comparison that, true or false, is suspect for its sensationalism—the accusation is at least personal: the accused are present.
While this isn’t really drama, to my mind, not a dialogue of different positions—is instead univocal, tendentious, almost impossible to “disagree with,” one man’s unchallenged monologue—it’s certainly theatre. Hard to deny that it might have a restorative effect on a traumatized community of which it’s a document.
But what does it mean to revive that document in Toronto in 2014? Does this story, a detailed account of one man’s life on death row under apartheid, always mean the same things whenever and wherever it’s staged? Is it always and forever relevant?
One can argue that certain subjects, like apartheid South Africa, like the Holocaust, are inexhaustible, perpetually relevant, that we must keep telling these stories so that we “never forget” and are confirmed in our horror of barbaric violence, our presumed moral clarity. Yet how bizarre to sit in a North American theatre, in the middle of an audience stirred by this injunction to remember and thereby avoid a repeat of history’s horrors, and know that, days earlier, extremist militias in Iraq had scores of civilians buried alive.
Then I’m not just disturbed by the “never forget” justification for art, the notion that a work of art is automatically important if it describes a global atrocity, any atrocity, no matter how remote: then, when I consider the indifference of really existing mass murderers to this kind of generalized liberal gesture, I’m sickened by its futility and self-importance.
One might defend this work for its metaphorical power, claim that the testimony of a prisoner of apartheid South Africa has a metaphorical relevance to current world affairs. But I think this only makes the issue worse. Believe what you will about Israel and Gaza, for instance, call the Israeli occupation an apartheid situation if you must: it’s not the same situation as the one that existed in South Africa, and to imply otherwise is to reduce our specific understanding of both.
He Left Quietly claims repeatedly that “we are all culpable” for the events it describes, a claim that makes sense in its original, South African context. In Toronto, such a position is a posture. Either “we,” the audience, are in no meaningful sense culpable for the sufferings inflicted on Mr. Kumalo, or else we’re culpable for all suffering everywhere, and the selection of this particular instance seems rather arbitrary. If there’s a middle ground, a sense in which North Americans played an oblique role in the atrocities of apartheid, an economic or ideological connection between the West and the world of the play, this production doesn’t reveal it.
Perhaps this culpable “we” in your production, Leora, is no longer meant to encompass the audience, still refers only to South African bystanders of the time, but I don’t really believe that: why, for one thing, should we be asked to assemble scattered shoes onstage if we’re not among those implicated, not meant to feel like we’re part of the problem and part of the healing?
So we’re implicated, vaguely, made to feel vaguely guilty. We come away with some insight into the brutal workings of the apartheid South Africa penal system, but not into the deeper causes of apartheid—not, crucially, into the specifics of human character that shaped apartheid, made it possible, caused its collapse.
I’ve written this letter to you and not to the playwright, Yael Farber, because, like I mentioned to you on another occasion, I think you’re the author of the artwork I’m describing. I can’t fault the performance text that Ms. Farber made for herself and her community; my questions concern the new work that text has become, more than a decade later and half a world away, and what it means that we celebrate that work so robustly.
I think it means that we’re well intentioned and compassionate. And that we feel powerless and afraid and dwarfed by world events and unsure how to act and lazy, and relieved that, for a couple of hours, we can be taken care of and reassured by art: scolded, like children, for our wrongdoing (which is unspecified but, as far as we can tell, related to our laziness) and then forgiven, patted on the back by a story that reduces morality to an easy proposition and allows us to get easily on the right side of it.
I found your production’s ecstatic reception depressing because to me it reflects a desire, even among our country’s educated progressives, to hear a simplistic political consensus echoed and not challenged. To be handed answers and not encouraged to ask questions. To be moved by suffering, feel vaguely bad and guilty about it, and not look more deeply into the problems of character, spirit, and political structure that create it.
You and your team rendered He Left Quietly with clarity and elegance. The production announces your arrival as a gifted director, sensitive to actors and with a sharp eye for design.
I’m in the weird position of wanting the result of your show’s success—that people discover your huge talent, celebrate you—while sort of abhorring what the show’s success represents.
So I hope you’ll accept both my misgivings and my congrats.