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Art, Culture

Death of a Colonialist

by Dave Durbach / 02.04.2010

Mr. Smith is your quintessential boys’ schoolteacher, enthusiastically endeavouring to impart his knowledge on indifferent teenagers. Wearing the same old chalk-stained threads day in, day out. For decades, “The Fossil” has been teaching high school history in that far-flung colonial playground that is Grahamstown.

Though Harry is proudly South African, he is rooted firmly in the past. His South Africa is that of the early 1800s, when the Eastern Cape was a bloody battleground between the amaXhosa and his British forefathers. Rather than stick to the prescribed syllabus, Smith focuses entirely on this history. His teaching methods get him into trouble with his headmaster following a moving classroom soliloquy in which he takes off his shirt and coats himself in red ochre, like his beloved Xhosa warriors did centuries before. After years of loyal service, his job is on the line.

At home, meanwhile, both of Harry’s adult children have settled overseas, his daughter following an abduction at the hands of black men. For Harry, the idea of living anywhere but in the Eastern Cape is impossible to fathom. That his children have seemingly ‘abandoned’ the country of their birth is hard for him to bear.

When his wife discovers she is dying of stomach cancer, she is incapable of telling her husband, for fear of hurting him. With the family in crisis, their kids return, each bringing their own problems and secrets.

Recently opened at the Market Theatre, Death of a Colonialist tackles issues of Whiteness, and South Africanness in general, that all South Africans are currently either doing their best to come to terms with, or to ignore. What defines us as South African? What are white people doing here, and what right do we have to call this country our own? And if we don’t belong here, where do we belong?

The white plight is complicated by the pull to supposedly greener pastures abroad, and the threat of being caught in between – unable to fully assimilate in an adopted home, yet incapable of reconnecting to Mzantsi other than on a superficial sporting level. The play deals with how many have used crime to justify self-imposed exile, while others choose to ignore it, to the point of considering any criticism of the country unpatriotic.

Most importantly, DOAC acknowledges the difficulty for whites here to divorce themselves from the colonial history of this country, the collective guilt of centuries of institutionalised privilege and bloodshed. Harry’s obsessive love for SA is irrevocably tied to the sins of his forefathers, specifically the murder of Xhosa leaders on the banks of the Kei in the name of their colonial dream (not ours). The title of the play refers not to the literal death of Mr. Smith or any other umlungu, but rather that of the colonial dream itself, upon which this country was built but no longer relies. No more shall this country’s history be told from an exclusively white point of view – a bitter pill for people like Harry to swallow, but nothing to run off to London for.

The play also grapples with more universal themes within the family: the effects of terminal illness, the fear of growing old alone, infidelity, how difficult it can be to break bad news to those we love, how isolated moments beyond our control can change our lives forever.

There are certain parallels to Disgrace – the tale of an outcast teacher who has to come to terms with both a sudden loss of privilege and a generation gap between father and daughter in dealing with crime. But whereas Disgrace was bleak and its author moved to Australia, DOAC ultimately delivers a positive message that home is indeed where the heart is. What could easily have been a self-indulgent focus group of white guilt and middle-class paranoia is a thought-provoking, hugely relevant tragicomedy, with powerful yet vulnerable performances from its cast.

Directed by Craig Freimond (of “Jozi” fame), written by Greg Latter and starring Jamie Bartlett, Shirley Johnston, Ashleigh Harvey and Theo Landey. Death of a Colonialist is playing at the Market Theatre in Newtown until May 2nd.

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