Did We Dance!by Lindokuhle Nkosi / 29.02.2012
“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do… you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers… Swazis, Pondos, Basotho… so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.” – Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, captain of the SS Mendi.
And so the Mendi sank on the 21st of February 1917, it took with it 600, no 700, no something over 800 men. Black soldiers who had volunteered to fight alongside the British during the First World War, gathered on the deck in formation. While others dove into the freezing unknown, they remained on the ship. Welcoming their death with bravery and valour. Singing and dancing.
The ship took with it whole villages. Chiefs and sub-chiefs. Farm workers who’d been promised that they would get their land back if the fought alongside the British. Fought is a strong word. They were made to leave their assegais, sticks and spears behind. The symbols of their manhood. They took with them, nothing but what the army supplied. No arms were entrusted to them. They were appropriated, told that a victory for the British would be a victory for them all. They never saw this victory. They were never to benefit.
In Did We Dance!, Warona Seane plays a woman who looks for her husband in scarce bodies of water. The land has dried up. There are no crops, but she collects the little water that does fall from the sky. In bucket and puddles, she looks for the man she lost to the sea. I say, “plays a woman” but what I mean is she becomes a woman. She becomes many women. She embodies the pain, the confusion. The constant state of mourning. She wears for most of the production, a black dress. She drowns herself like the 800 men that were swallowed whole. Why did they die? Whose war were they fighting anyway? Why did they leave their spears at home when they supposed to be at war? What happens to villages and communities when all the fathers are gone? Who teaches the boys to be men?
Written by Lara Foot, and choreographed by Owen Manamela-Mogane their movements are both dead and heavy, and lithe and alive. They reach for home. Flail for the surface. Gasp for air. Desperate long before they’re drowning. They haunt the people they left behind. Dancing in their memories. Drowning in the heaviness of their minds.
Heavy. How do you commemorate an event that history refuses to recognise? Leaden. How do you give purpose to those left behind? Foggy, like the night they died. How do you convince nations to stop grieving? These are some of the aspects explored by the production. The action-reaction relationship that exists long after something has happened. The symbiosis of the living and the dead. The reason that they danced while they were dying.
*Did We Dance! plays at the Baxter Theatre in iKapa until 10 March 2012.