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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Amajuba - Like Doves We Rose
Criterion Theatre Spring 2005

This South African performance piece is built on the life experiences of its five cast members, developed by them with writer-director Yael Farber. The unifying theme is the experience of a generation of black men and women whose life in the new South Africa is still clouded by the experiences of their childhood.

As they take turns telling their own stories, with the others helping in the acting-out of the narratives, a mourning for lost childhoods grows until, in the final moments, they choose rather to take pride in having survived and risen from their pasts.

The material has an inherent power for many, and I must report that the audience responded enthusiastically at the end. And yet you may sense, as I did, that both material and performances have become too smooth and  polished, losing the raw edge of reality from which their power should come.

Tshallo Chokwe, France Conradie, Bongeka Mpongwana, Phillip 'Tipo' Tindisa and Jabulile Tshabalala  have been telling these stories for more than four years now, and I fear that, as they have become more assured as performers, they have also become somewhat distanced from their own narratives.

If you were not told that each story was autobiographical (and there are a dozen or more signs around the lobby and theatre to remind you), you could easily believe that these were just actors working from a script that meant little to them personally.

Meanwhile, the stories themselves seem to have been somewhat homogenised in the process of shaping autobiography into theatre, perhaps in an attempt to bring out their archetypal qualities. While you can understand the artistic decision  to do this, it also involves a sacrifice of immediacy and the shock of recognition of real truth appearing onstage.

And perhaps because that sense of reality wavers, you may have time to notice that the life stories do not come across as race- or place-specific. Yes, there are references to colour prejudice and forced relocations, and yes, apartheid unquestionably lay behind each of the experiences described.  But what we actually hear about are the traumas of growing up in extreme poverty, of striving in a family culture that did not support ambition, of a mother holding a family together when father left, and of watching others fall victim to gang violence.

These are all terrible experiences but, in part because they lack the shock power of the personal,  they might just as easily be set in an American inner city, or on the streets of Calcutta, or among European asylum seekers. (Only the last story told, of youngsters moving almost casually from football to dances to paramilitary political action, has a real sense of time and place.)

Again, this may very well have been intentional, to bring the material closer to the audience, but again it takes away from the sense of authentic and unique African voices.

As I said at the start, the subject matter, however blunted, is inherently powerful, and that may be enough for many. For me the power was caught only in brief glimpses of what the material must have been like back in the roughness of rehearsal and development, not in the too-smooth form it now has.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Amajuba - Criterion  Theatre 2005

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