It’s not every day you get to meet artists who were also at the forefront of a major activist movement. As The Fall transfers to the Royal Court, after a rave-reviewed run at the Edinburgh Fringe, I spoke with two of its cast, Ameera Conrad and Tankiso Mamabolo.
In 2015, they were part of a group of students who protested against the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town campus. Rhodes was a 19th century imperialist who has been criticised for paving the way for the Apartheid. The Rhodes Must Fall movement argued the statue was a celebration of colonialism and years of institutionalised racism, a symbol both demeaning and hurtful to both students and staff. After controversy and even violence at the hands of the police, UCT students finally saw the fall of Rhodes. But that wasn’t the end of the story for Ameera and Tankiso, who joined five other performers in The Fall, a powerful collaborative performance which explores what transpired during the protests.
“Rhodes Must Fall was a catalyst”¦” Ameera explains. The movement began with students protesting the statue and swiftly progressed to tackle all that the statue represented, from racism on campus and a Eurocentric curriculum, to attitudes towards female and transgender members of campus, as well as the evident lack of black staff. “So we couldn’t just end with Rhodes.”
So how did the devising process begin? Ameera and Tankiso laugh and admit that creating the show, facilitated by director and UCT lecturer Clare Stopford, was a hectic experience. They began by asking – what actually prompted the students to start protesting in the first place? And this question helped fuel a process which was, Tankiso says, one of learning and unlearning: “It was a healing process, it was also a triggering process, it was also a learning process but we all came out better people.”
The Fall was particularly tricky to devise because the ensemble – consisting of Oarabile Ditsele, Kgomotso Khunoane, Ameera Conrad, Thando Mangcu, Tankiso Mamabolo, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Sihle Mnqwazana and Cleo Raatus – were dealing with their own lived experiences. Despite this, they engaged openly in dialogue about the movement, reopening old wounds in an attempt to get to the heart of the protests. It is apparent that this is a strong-minded and close-knit cast, which is certainly necessary when the play deals with issues so close to home. Ameera even jokes that she can tell when Tankiso is in a bad mood and knows when not to push her as a person and as an artist.
“It’s Groundhog day,” Tankiso laughs, although there is a seriousness to her tone. “We relive the experiences over and over again”¦”
The Fall offers an unvarnished examination of what went on behind the scenes at the University of Cape Town. It’s refreshing to witness such honesty – often a movement can be seen through rose-tinted glasses, where the demonstrators seem wholly organised. Or depictions of protests can get so lost in the violence that people fail to acknowledge the people behind the anger. But The Fall takes us backstage, showing where the frustrations originated and even allowing us to see the ugly, explosive arguments between members of the movement itself. The show reminds you that all protests consist of real people; there is no perfect movement and each person has their own answer to the age-old question of how we can achieve equality. The Fall is many things, but it is not a neat play that spoonfeeds its audience. That is what makes the show successful, Ameera argues, because the show doesn’t offer one clear cut solution to the complicated problems faced: “There are many different ideologies and opinions that came out of the movement,” she says and her fellow actor nods in agreement.
Of course, whilst this isn’t a play enforcing any one ideal, there are still lessons to be learnt. “Whoever comes to watch the play is in for a difficult – but rewarding – ride,” Ameera warns. The Fall ignites a conversation about what it really means to protest injustice, and exactly how much people can stand before they decide that change is needed. In the light of recent movements aimed at removing Confederate monuments in the US, which stand as an unforgettable symbol of America’s violent history, I can’t help but feel there has never been a better time to watch it.
I am also reminded of the recent controversy surrounding the NFL players who kneeled during the American national anthem. Their action caused people to question the “correct” procedure for protests, as well as encouraging debate between keeping things the way they are (for the sake of remembering history) and moving on. For Ameera, the argument that statues which laud a racist history should remain standing for the sake of posterity is ludicrous – “People who argue for statues as historically necessary are going to be so surprised when they hear about books”¦history can be exist in other forms too!”
The artists believe there is a difference between keeping ahold of something for historical value and celebrating an ugly past. This is certainly a discussion that needs to be had. The Fall has this conversation – or rather, it has one half of it. The rest is left for the audience. Tankiso says that the cast aren’t interested in telling, but showing: “We’ll show you what we went through and you decide for yourself if change is needed”¦then you go and you decide how you’re going to implement change in your life.”
For Tankiso, the theatre is the perfect medium to tell their story, and I love her self-assuredness as she states: “As an artist there’s a lot of license I am given to say what I feel”¦in the theatre, people see your humanity more.” But for Ameera, theatre’s power lies in its authenticity, in the immediacy of their emotions onstage, and the power of reliving the emotions with a live audience present.
It’s incredible that this authenticity is being brought to audiences who likely had no firsthand experience with the movement. It’s also incredible that we can sit in the cosy atmosphere of the Royal Court in the UK and experience emotions lived by people in South Africa. It is a story that needs to be told but one that, unfortunately, can be easily forgotten because, as Ameera so succinctly puts it, “people get political amnesia.”
As a theatremaker myself, I can’t help but be curious about the incredible strength required to tell your story, especially when that story deals with sensitive topics as race, gender and sexuality. My own performances have dealt with similar topics but I must admit that a small part of me worries how people will judge me for speaking about race. For Tankiso, it helps to remember that they are not portraying perfect people, because “wokeness isn’t a place you arrive at.” This, she believes, is a story that deserves to be told in this way, regardless of whether her character is feeling ‘awkward’ or imperfect that day. Ameera simply shrugs and states: “When people work with me they can expect to have a debate on race and gender and sexuality and religion. It comes with the package of working with me. I’m not going to pretend I’m not a brown Muslim woman in the world!”
I can sense that the performers don’t only want change to attitudes towards race and gender: they’re open to change within themselves, too. They are feeling more and more confident having harder conversations. Initially Ameera’s character wasn’t openly queer and Muslim but they decided that this was a representation needed to be seen within the Muslim community. The show undergoes constant refinement, and the actors deal sensitively with their own memories and the memories of others, which are both concrete and ephemeral, at once objective and subjective: “There are still moments where someone (in the company) says, ‘I remember it like this’ but someone else says, ‘but I remember it like this’ so you have to put the memories together.”
Despite their clamouring for change, UCT has been arguably slow with addressing these issues. Ameera has a lot of sympathy for the complex bureaucracy behind university structures, but is hopeful that the University of Cape Town will refrain from painting the frustrated students as the ‘bad guys.’ Tankiso is less optimistic: “Maybe the university is trying as hard as it can but black students are at a point that we really don’t care how long it’s going to take to fix something when the problem was always evident. Why did it have to take so much protest for them to listen?”
As the performers lament their issues with higher education, which include the lack of black teachers, I am reminded of my own experiences. Despite living in a variety of different (and even diverse) areas, and studying as an undergraduate and postgraduate at different institutions, I have only been taught by two black teachers: the first was my Reception teacher and my second wasn’t until my undergraduate fifteen years later. The Runymede Compilation of Black Teachers in the UK 2017 shows that black teachers are involved in only 45 (out of 164) Higher Education Institutions in the UK. A big change is needed, but it seems to be happening maddeningly slowly. Perhaps The Fall will help bring these very real issues to forefront of peoples’ minds. And the ensemble are certainly very interested in how UK audiences will perceive the play. “The Royal Court have been so lovely to us,” they say, “And they obviously have a history with South African theatre”¦we’re interested to see what a London Chelsea audience will make of the play.” They are specifically interested in whether people will be able to locate themselves within the lineage of colonisation. Will audiences look beyond these seven students and examine their own views on immigration and third world countries at war? Will they interrogate their role in the domino effect that leads right up to modern day?
The artists are acutely aware of how surreal it is to be performing a play like this in UK, what Ameera calls the “motherland” of colonialization. On a lighter note though, they have already noticed some differences between UK audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and those back home: “In Edinburgh people were very quiet. I don’t know if that’s the UK theatre etiquette? At home, audience members would join in with the call and response”¦it’s completely different!”
Ultimately, the ensemble are excited to experience the reactions to the show at the Royal Court. They also wish to provide a message of encouragement to fellow protestors, through documenting “the moment that affirmed [their] Blackness on campus.” And what Tankiso loves most about the play is that it constantly reminds people of that moment: “I think if we remember how we felt when we got that first victory, this knowledge will be the thing to propel people to continue with the fight.”
The Fall is on at the Royal Court Theatre, 26th September – 14th October 2017. Book tickets here.