When you walk into the Barney Simon Theatre, you are confronted by Sicelo (Mpumelelo Grootbroom) standing on a chair. It’s immediately clear that whatever role Sicelo is supposed to play in Rainbow Scars, it’s not going to be an easy one.
The play, written by seasoned playwright Mark van Graan and directed by Lara Bye, features Ellen Robinson (Jeniffer Steyn), Lindiwe (Kertrice Maitis) and Grootbroom as Sicelo. Robinson is a middle-aged white suburban mom who adopts her domestic worker’s three-year-old black daughter in what is now a familiar gesture of the rainbow experiment.
As a result of the adoption, Lindiwe, a born-free, grows up sheltered from the violence of Khayelitsha where most of her relatives continue to live on the dark side of Mandela’s miracle (or is it on the other side of Desmond Tutu’s rainbow?). The Robinsons (Ellen and Lindiwe) are a happy family, living in harmony in a gated suburb in Cape Town. But Lindiwe is something of a stereotype: she can’t speak any vernacular – which is ironic because Ellen twists and bites her tongue to learn Xhosa. Their illusion of a perfect “rainbow family”, enjoying the good life in a gated suburb of Cape Town, is shattered when Lindiwe meets her cousin Sicelo for the first time.
In a wildly expressive scene, we watch Sicelo literally dragging his cousin kicking and screaming to the “fact of blackness”. Sicelo is the agent who brings to life an existence Lindiwe can’t comprehend.
But how could she? The play opens with Sicelo in court pleading his innocence; his plea, not surprisingly, falls on deaf ears. A black man on trial in a white justice system invites comparison with Richards Wright’s masterpiece, Native Son – even though Bigger Thomas did kill Mary, his biggest crime was being a black man at the wrong place at the right time; so is Sicelo.
Throughout the play we are never invited to walk in Sicelo’s shiny brown shoes for a day. It’s something at which the set itself seems to gesture: he is on the margins of the action, removed from the centre of the stage occupied by the Robinson family. But, then again, Sicelo’s story can never be told in the duration of the play. His story doesn’t begin with him being sent to prison. Sicelo was born in the prison of Khayelitsha, and thus his story can only be narrated from 1652 (with the arrival of the some of the people who would take starring roles as prison warders) to 1948 (when the prison philosophy was theorised and formally implemented) and to post 1994 (when the prisons were given new names). The ghetto was never a place for humans to live; it is, and continues to be, a labour camp.
Van Graan’s critique of the post-1994 project, while generally correct, is somewhat wanting. At no point does he attempt to reveal, or allude to, the source of post-1994 problems. All we get is an unsubstantiated blame game. To tell black people to stop blaming apartheid, which is exactly what Van Graan is doing, is like telling a barefooted man to lift himself up by his bootstraps. Black people again find themselves at the end of a judgmental wagging finger – they don’t need that; what they need is redress and restoration of their dignity. As it is, in the play, Sicelo’s anguish from more than 350 years of intergenerational subjugation is reduced to irrational acts (throwing props around), empty gestures and howls – “You owe me eight years of my life, madam!” No, she owes you everything. And that is not some manifestation of victimhood, as the play seems to suggest, it’s a historical fact. There are certain scenes that are implausible, but what’s more disconcerting are questions the play leaves unanswered. This is partly because the play doesn’t ask any questions to begin with; therefore it’s unable to make any proposition on a way forward. Rather than clarify issues, it mystifies them even further with clichés and hearsay.
Despite its weaknesses, the play still showcases Van Graan’s skill as a writer; the dialogue is enchanting and, at times, even humorous. The strong cast also saves the play. Grootboom’s presence is a strong one, as is Steyn and Maitisa’s.
Van Graan is correct about one thing, though: “The rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world” has reached a point where its citizens, on both sides of the fence, are becoming disillusioned and their bandaged scars are beginning to fester.