The accidental sinking of the troopship SS Mendi on a foggy morning in 1917 is long forgotten, but it’s a moving tale of heartbreak, bravery and loss that deserves remembering. Playwright Lara Foot has taken the few facts that are known about this old maritime disaster and woven a story around it, drawing from poetry, oral legend and historical records to deliver a tragedy made personal. By LESLEY STONES.
The result is Ukutshona ko Mendi…Did We Dance, an African-flavour piece of theatre blending vibrant storytelling with dance, wonderful singing and rich symbolism.
More than 600 men died on the Mendi, a troopship carrying the 5th Battalion South African Native Labor Corps who had enlisted to support the British army in the First World War.
Ukutshona ko Mendi starts with the grieving widow Noria (Warona Seane) trying to contact her lost husband through a spiritual mediator (Lulamile Nikani).
Then through flashbacks we see the men enlisting for the army and the tragedy at sea when another ship ploughs into the Mendi but fails to stop and rescue the survivors.
It’s a powerful piece of drama, with the bare facts stretched out and dramatised to give us a handful of men representing the hundreds who went. The boy who wants to become a man, the father who needs to earn enough to support his kids and pregnant wife. All signing up with the hope and expectation that if they fight for the British, then the British will fight for them in return, ridding South Africa of the Boers and returning the land to the Xhosa tribe.
A false hope, a naïve expectation. All that Noria gets in return is a black dress and an officious letter. “They sent a letter telling me to mourn”, she says. “I wish they would send me another telling me to stop. I don’t know how to stop.”
The dual language script in English and Xhosa manages to keep everyone in the loop. And when the narrative kicks in it’s a gripping tale, especially the brief courtroom scenes where the captain of the ship that hit the Mendi and then sailed straight on tries to justify his heartless actions.
The heartbeat of the story is pounded out by Thapelo Kutoane, playing a variety of instruments to the side of the stage. He fires up the intensity with his drums and strings, and makes emotional scenes fairly shimmer with his cymbal.
It’s far from flawless, chiefly for me because it feels padded to eke out the story line, and sometimes too disorderly when director Mandla Mbothwe has everyone telling their own story, making the action loud, cluttered and a little frenetic, before it settles to a main narrative and more orderly direction.
I found these outbreaks of isolated actions a little too frenetic, but there’s certainly plenty to keep your eyes and ears busy. The word that came to mind is overblown, since a neater telling of the tale may have intensified the emotional impact, not diluted it in too many directions.
Mbothwe designed the set as well as directing the play, and it works brilliantly. There’s sand all over the place, ship’s rigging behind, a homestead for Noria and a central area where we picture the chilly unforgiving sea.
The seven actors all carry an infectious energy that at times has us laughing, and at times gulping with emotion. You’ll remember how this piece of history was told, even if the history itself is practically forgotten. DM
Ukutshona ko Mendi…Did We Dance runs at the Market Theatre until March 16.
Photo: Warona Seane as Noria in Ukutshona ko Mendi…Did We Dance
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.