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South African Play “The Fall” Takes on Questions of Intersectionality in a Movement

by Eva Rose Tesfaye on June 14, 2018

Having started on June 6th, the critically-acclaimed play, The Fall, will run at the South African State Theater in Pretoria until June 24th. This rousing play tells the story of the #RhodesMustFall student movement at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Starting off in Cape Town, the play has traveled to New York, London, and now Pretoria. It is a winner of the Scotsman Fringe First Award for writing, The Stage’s Ensemble Award for Acting, the Fleur du Cap Encore Award and shortlisted for the Amnesty International Award for Human Rights. It also collected several 5-star reviews from various publications, including the New York Times, and is published internationally by Oberon Books.

The collaborative ensemble piece is composed of seven actors, Ameera Conrad, Oarabile Ditsele, Zandile Madliwa, Sizwesandile Mninsi, Sihle Mnqwazana, Cleo Raatus and Tankiso Mambolo. Clare Stopford is the director. Many of those who were a part of the creation of the show were actually attending the University of Cape Town during this movement.

The actors monologue, argue, sing, dance, and march throughout the stage, which only has a few tables as the set pieces. These tables become the hall the students take over as well as the platform on which the statue stood. Projected behind them is footage from the actual events that happened just a few years ago. The play features a trigger warning for those who have taken part in the protests.

Cecil Rhodes was a British imperialist, industrialist, and South African prime minister of the late 19th century. He famously said, “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race,’ when talking about his fellow Anglo-Saxons. His statue at the University of Cape Town has been a source of tension since even before apartheid ended in South Africa.

The play begins by focusing on the black student movement and their efforts to take down the statue back in 2015. The statue interestingly, offensive as it is, is merely a spark that sets off the movement against the colonialism that remains in the university education system and in general in South Africa. The students talk about their experiences as black students on campus and their feelings of being othered and underrepresented, as well as the treatment of black faculty and black workers. Eventually, the movement also addresses issues of “Africanophobia,” the attacks on African foreigners that immigrated to the country, and the lowering of school fees, #FeesMustFall.

Therefore, the play doesn’t end with the removal of the statue. Just as much as it is about decolonization of universities, it is about the struggles that are faced when building a movement and keeping it going. Dissent within the group starts early on when characters argue about whether to remove the statue themselves or to work with the administration. This problem of peaceful versus violent protest can be traced back to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as well as Franz Fanon who is cited in the play in favor of taking it down violently.

After the statue is removed it becomes clear that the students have trouble defining what they mean when they say, intersectional movement, that the world is not going to wait for them to do so. Cleverly, in order to illustrate this problem, each character is very specific and represents different subsets of the black community: colored, female, male, non-binary-trans, queer, Muslim, Christian, higher-income, and lower-income. While this means that the play has something for every audience member, it also makes the show unapologetically controversial.

This is exemplified by one of the strongest, loudest, most compelling characters in a play, a queer, colored, Muslim girl from the Cape named Camila (Ameera Conrad), who seems to perceive almost everything in extremes. One of the biggest laughs in the play comes from one of her lines. In a scene, when the characters are getting frustrated with the black men who do not understand the problem of the patriarchy, one of the men shouts, “Then teach me!”  Camila immediately gets in his face, tells him to get on google to teach himself and says “Teach me? Ha! I don’t get paid a teacher’s salary!”

Despite being filled with heavy topics, the play keeps the audience laughing. On its opening night, the actors received a standing ovation, as well as constant reactions from the audience throughout, they sung along to the songs (which are those that were sung during the actual protests), snapped every time a good point was made, murmured whenever something controversial was said, and cheered whenever a small victory was made by the movement or any of its cadres.

Despite being about a South African movement, the issues and ideas are familiar to protests around the world. “That day,” one of the students remembers, “for the first time I witnessed how little our lives matter as black people,” which is something to which black people across the globe can relate. This is what makes the play so successful and so timeless.

Featured Image via Flickr/Desmond Bowles

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Eva Rose Tesfaye
Eva Tesfaye has traveled around the world her whole life but thinks of Africa as home. She loves reading novels and watching plays (especially ones with people of color in them). She has a love-hate relationship with her big curly hair.