The past comes back in Black

Ameera Patel in Black. Photo by Sam Spiller

An ideal way to discuss the meaning behind Black, the stage adaptation of C.A. David’s novel The Blacks of Cape Town by director Jade Bowers, is to refer to a prop used throughout the performance. The prop is a battered chalkboard, on which a rough timeline of South Africa’s political history is scribbled. This is then supplemented by an overhead projector, which shines additional information on top of the timeline, noting points of an unknown, personal struggle during the same period.

That struggle is the challenge laid before Zara Black, a young woman from Cape Town studying in the United States, describing the origins of her family and trying to decipher the mysteries of where she came from. The challenge comes as a result of a letter received from the South African government. They are on the verge of releasing classified files, and information regarding Zara’s father, the late Bartholomew Black.

This entire story, involving Kimberley diamonds, Apartheid activism, family drama, and a trip to America, is all told by Ameera Patel, the sole performer on stage and purveyor of a multitude of different characters. The performance is simply brilliant, aided by a narrative structure that allows for clean distinctions between all of Patel’s performances.

Ameera Patel (pictured) plays a series of role related to the main character, Zara Black. Photo by Sam Spiller/Cue

Oral storytelling on theatrical platforms can be very difficult to pull off well, as there are various limitations that come with trying to tell a tale, or to put forward ideas by way of a single source, without providing relevancy as to why it should be produced on a stage. Bowers possesses a clear understanding of what those limitations are, and knows how the additional theatrical elements such as setting, lighting, sound and atmosphere should be supplementing the story without declaring their necessity to it.

The spotlights, and a beautiful musical score by Daniel Geddes, though complementing the production and completing the stage aesthetic, are secondary to the meat processed by Zara Black. She remains ever compelling and engaging. A big plus for a solo show.

But what makes Black great are the explored themes. What hidden moments of the past, even if not written in chalk, are able to spring off the board and exist alongside us? There is a great deal of both personal and South African (and everything in between) history that has remained in the shadows. Facts and details that we are unable to know, or that we do not wish to know, and how all of it has a direct influence on one’s identity. Having not read Davies’s book, I cannot determine whether the themes of self-discovery and the relationship with one’s own origin and race, are supposed to be the leading ideas of this show. But they are, and they work to its advantage.

Black is a highlight of this year’s lineup of solo performances and of dramatic storytelling, showing us that drama and theatre are not determined by what occurs on stage, but what we take away from it.

Watch Black at 19:30 on 5 July; 18:00 on 6 July; and 12:00 and 18:00 on 7 July at St Andrews Hall.

By Sam Spiller