This movement, which became an international cause célèbre, became known as “Rhodes Must Fall,” and everyone involved was of one mind on the imperative demanded by its name. Beyond that point, agreement was far harder to come by, starting with exactly how the statute should come down.
There is no question as to where the general sympathies of this production lie. Many of its creators, after all, were students at the University of Cape Town when the events described here occurred.
Yet “The Fall” is not so much a protest play, intended to rouse the socially dormant into action, as it is a play about a protest, And that distinction is what it gives this docudrama its arresting complexity.
A mixture of song, dance and journalistic narratives, “The Fall” reminds us that even the most cohesive movements are made up of disparate parts that will never entirely mesh. People being people, no two are entirely similar or even entirely compatible. In union, inevitably, there are fissures as well as strength.
Credit Richard Termine for The New York Times
That each cast member is such a compellingly specific presence is a blessing and a necessity. (They are Ameera Conrad, Cleo Raatus, Oarabile Ditsele, Sihle Mnqwazana, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Tankiso Mamabolo and Zandile Madliwa.) For many of their characters’ shared scenes — particularly those portraying the increasingly contentious meetings among the protest’s organizers — they come across as little more than the sums of their political points of view and social backgrounds.
The variety of sexuality-based perspectives alone is dizzying and embraces several stripes of feminism, beleaguered African manhood, and nonbinary and transgender “cadres.” The resulting clashes of opinion will be familiar to anyone who has been following the gender conflicts on campus in the United States.
Further divisions arise from the characters’ geographic and financial origins, and even from the differences in their skin tones. The debaters’ doctrinaire arguments, as uncomfortable and tedious as such conflicts tend to be, are contrasted by the portrayal of those moments when they all unite in acts of physical protest.
These include not only the removal of Rhodes’s statue but also marches against Afrophobia — and the killings of African nationals (mostly non-South Africans) — and a university boycott over student tuition fees and debts. A gathering before the Parliament building in Cape Town ends with police forces using tear gas and stun grenades on the protesters.
“That day,” one of the students remembers, “for the first time I witnessed how little our lives matter as black people.” American audience members will no doubt hear echoes of similar sentiments spoken with damning frequency in their own country.
Video footage of the real-life events described here is projected intermittently. But the rushing momentum of what happened, both scary and exhilarating, is most evocatively conjured by the details of first-person reminiscence. When Rhodes’s statue is at last hoisted, it is momentarily suspended above the plinth, “like he wasn’t sure if he should get off or not; it looked like his ghost was fighting back.”
There is an infectious, heady joy in such scenes. The ensemble makes use of the sparse scenic elements of Patrick Curtis’s set (basically, four identical tables) to mount barricades, climb onto plinths and moving vehicles, and merge briefly into a transporting, time-stopping blur of communal triumph, rendered in slow-motion choreography.
And then come the hangovers, with the realization of how little as well as how much has been accomplished, of how internal division slows down collective progress. No one perhaps embodies the pain of such knowledge as acutely as Qhawekazi (Ms. Mamabolo), who has overseen the meetings of protesters and tried to maintain order among them.
It is she who, in the production’s final monologue, delivers the harrowing assessment: “We used to be people” who dreamed of a day when being “brave and fearless” would no longer be an essential part of identity. She worries that “some of us are losing our humanity one protest at a time.”
Then the singing begins once more. And there is hope, as well as lamentation, in its sweet, sad sound.