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Where the Soul Resides

by Dave Durbach / 02.06.2010

Steven Bantu Biko was the most influential and lionized of all struggle martyrs. His story hasn’t gone undocumented, and to many he represents the countless other figures who gave their lives for the struggle, particularly those who died at the hands of police and security forces, before they could see or taste uhuru for themselves.

Biko was many things, but will be remembered primarily as the writer who laid the intellectual platform of the Black Consciousness movement, who elucidated the necessity of Black Pride and the pitfalls of white liberalism, and who led South Africa’s youth in the turbulent times leading up to the epochal year of 1976, the year before his tragic death.

Biko: Where the Soul Resides is a play dealing with the rise and fall of the charismatic leader. It opens with Biko’s dismissal of the multiracial but white-controlled National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) to form the all-black South African Student Organisation (SASO) in 1968, going on to trace key events in his political and private life until his untimely demise. It centres primarily on heated (often drunken) conversations with BC contemporaries like Barney Pityana, Strini Moodley, Mapetla Mohapi and Malusi Mpumlwana, Biko’s relationship with Father Aelred Stubbs (James Borthwick of ‘Scoop Schoombie’ fame), his troubled marriage to Ntsiki and his extramarital romance with kindred spirit Mamphele Ramphele (Lesego Motsepe from Isidingo), and his countless run-ins with apartheid authorities.

While undoubtedly a story with which all South Africans ought to be familiar, for those already vaguely aware of the man’s legacy, the play itself offers little fresh insight or theatrical innovation. Confusingly, several of the cast play more than one character. This, and that the play is barely an hour long, gives the impression that it is somehow incomplete – strange, considering it first played at the Grahamstown Festival back in 2008. Consequently it lacks the wherewithal to fully address the contradictions of Biko’s life and the era itself. While the dialogue is well-crafted, often witty and moving, and Masoja Msiza is convincing in his portrayal of the supremely eloquent, and at times verbose, Biko, the scenes are predictable and overly reminiscent of the first half of Cry Freedom, Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film starring Denzel Washington. As a result, the play comes across as rushed and one-dimensional, and offers little new insight into the man.

An exception to this is a thought-provoking passage that has Pityana and Biko looking forward to the day when they are in power and when streets and landmarks are named after them. It draws a salient link between then and now, helping to put Biko’s accomplishments in context, although failing to elaborate any further. While few would look back on those times with fondness, the heated debates between BC comrades and their singularity of purpose hearkens back to a time of black and white, good and evil – a simpler time when, despite the endless injustices, leaders possessed a clearer sense of direction than they do today.

Directed by Martin Koboekae. Starring Masoja Msiza, Lesego Motsepe, Andile Mngadi, Peter Mashigo Molefi Monaisa, , Faheem Khan, James Borthwick, Errol Ndotho, Molefi Monaisa, Sibulele Gcilitshana and David James. Biko: Where the Soul Resides is playing at the Market’s Laager Theatre til the 13th of June.

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