Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise
nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
July 24, 2006
After touring England, Australia, and the United States, Farber Foundry Production's Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise has garnered many great reviews since its first conception in South Africa seven years ago. It is now making its New York debut—courtesy of The Culture Project at 45 Bleecker—and its praise is well-earned, as was the standing ovation it received after the performance I attended.
South African director Yael Farber has created this powerful piece from a very simple idea—stringing together the personal stories of its five performers, all of whom grew up during the last days of the Apartheid system that prohibited non-whites from attaining social, economic, and legal equality in South Africa until 1991. Based on the premise that one can't "leave something in the dust without giving it a proper burial," the show is structured along the lines of a spiritual cleansing ritual. The set is little more that a bunch of wash basins of different shapes and sizes, and one by one the actors emerge from their childhood innocence to tell their individual stories during the bleak years of the their adolescence. With the help of their fellow performers, who portray the many supporting characters in each of the tales, each narrator symbolically reclaims his or her past, healing the scars and washing away the emotional baggage of the era.
If this makes the show sound dreary and perhaps a little too precious—it's not. Amajuba is a lively and spirited piece of theatre, and making the whole evening work is that these five narrators not only have compelling stories to tell, but that each of them is also a talented actor, singer, and performer in his/her own right. Farber seems to have done an excellent job guiding the creation of the piece, and though she wisely stays out the way in many places, there are many moments of well-placed theatrical ingenuity that keep the piece visually interesting and prevent it, at least for any length of time, from getting bogged down into a mode of static storytelling. She also has a good sense as to when to break into movement and song, and has structured the evening in a way that gradually builds in intensity to a powerful climax.
The five biographies are arranged in an order roughly based on the age of each of its protagonists—from eight to sixteen—which gives Amajuba as a whole the feeling of universal journey from childhood to young adulthood. It's a childhood deprived of many happy childhood moments, as the cast often points out, and we witness an eight year old girl trying to fend for herself as the poorest of the poor in a South African township, a boy whose light skin makes him a target of abuse by his teacher and peers, and a young teen whose father abandons his family after a forced relocation. By the time we reach the stories of the final two narrators—which are set in their mid and late teens, and which take place when Apartheid is going through the violent spasms of its imminent demise—the mood of the play reaches a gripping but harrowing tenseness that makes the catharsis of Amajuba's ritualized finale a welcome and life-affirming release.
What you won't find in Amajuba is an overview of the Apartheid system, or any detailed explanations as to how South African society in the 1980s created the conditions in which the cast grew up. Amajuba does not set out to be a history lesson, but what it does instead is to paint a series of vividly personal portrayals of what life in the townships was like. And though these stories are intensely private in many ways, they are also surprisingly universal. One can't help but be reminded of how many of the situations in Amajuba have direct parallels in the past of the United States—and how many more of the conditions it describes continue to exist in this country today.
What you also won't find here is much in the way of self-pity; nor does the piece rest on a feeling of moral superiority that can cut off the piece from its audience. Instead, the cast members—as Amajuba's authors, presenters, and source material—exude an emotional generosity that is infectious even in the evening's most brutal and sobering moments. In keeping with its title, Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise is a stirring and joyous experience, and one not to be missed.